“Joe, why didn’t you do the assay? You said you would?” The P.I., Nick, has been trying to get Joe, his graduate student, to do the necessary experiments for awhile now, but Joe’s been finding it difficult to see the importance of this assay.

However, Joe responds, “It’s just too much to get the assay to work, and I’d rather not waste my time.” Joe’s response leaves Nick feeling less confident in his ability to motivate his student.

This is something that I struggled with as a manager for many years. It’s sometimes hard to get people to do the things that needs to get done, but aren’t necessarily enjoyable. We’ve all heard about the old “stick and carrot” strategies. This actually works, but not in the way you might think. Researchers at Columbia University describe this strategy differently in an article featured in the Harvard Business Review. Their work focuses on what is called prevention and promotion mindsets.

If you understand the different types of self motivational strategies, you can tailor how to motivate your team into action. This can ultimately translate into real world productivity and discoveries.

In essence, when someone has a promotion mindset, they’re most often motivated by big picture “why” reasons. This enables them to focus on the positive outcomes of what they’re doing, rather than be discouraged by its failures.

In contrast, when someone has a prevention mindset, they’re most likely to analyze the risks associated with not doing certain tasks. They’ll do everything to avoid the risk of failure. These individuals are more interested in the instructions of “how” to complete the challenging tasks.

Let’s take the example of Joe, the graduate student. He has the tedious task of troubleshooting an experimental assay, which may or may not yield any results. It leaves little to be desired to take on these requirements. Therefore, Joe will challenge the legitimacy of performing this task and you may have to cajole your team member into action. While this may be the least optimal way of motivating your team, it sometimes is necessary.

Depending if the person possesses a prevention or a promotion mindset, you can give them the following reasons to take on the less than desirable task:

Preventions: “Joe, you won’t be able to submit your dissertation if this assay isn’t completed.”
Promotions: “Joe, you’ll finally be able to submit your dissertation, but only if this assay is completed.”

Now, let’s draw your attention to the ONLY difference between these 2 sentences. It is the usage of negative and positive motivating words. Prevention and promotional mindset people are sensitive to verbiage that accentuate their unique frames of thought. Look at the sentences again, and ask yourself, “Which one do I identify with?” Which sentence would get you to do the assay?

Next time, if someone isn’t getting their work done, think how that person is motivated and re-word your request accordingly.

Have you ever had difficulty motivating your lab mates? How did you resolve it? Share your experiences with us.