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Within the AQai adaptability framework, a key dimension is Character.  Character is your preference for a particular way of responding to the challenge of change.  One of the things that AQai feels it’s important to measure is your Motivation Style.  As with all the character traits, there’s no right answer or wrong answer.  Motivation Style is measured across a spectrum where  you have those who prefer to ‘Play to Win’ and, at the other end, a preference to ‘Play to Protect’.

Play to Win

Let’s start with ‘Play to Win’.  If this is your preference then you’re motivated to maximise gains.  You will take chances to accomplish your aims and tend to focus on the bigger picture. As your primary focus is positive outcomes, you will likely adapt boldly and potentially risky way.  You may often think about an inspirational role model that achieved success and aspire to be like them.  At the extreme, you are like the person in the casino who puts all their chips on a single number.

Play to Protect

Now let’s look at ‘Play to Protect’.  If you have a strong preference for ‘Play to Protect’, you’re likely to want to hold on to what you’ve got.  You will want to make sure that the things that are most important to you are retained in a situation of change.  You will seek to make changes that preserve the status quo, as far as possible.

Knowing your Team

So, what does this mean?  If you are a team leader introducing change, you should adapt how you introduce change to those people with different Motivation Styles.  If you’ve got people who are more on the ‘Play to Win’ side, then you’re going to be selling the opportunity for positive outcomes. You will need to ensure that as people respond to that, they are not engaging in over-risky behaviours.

On the other hand, on the ‘Play to Protect’ side, you’ll need to motivate them around the things that they can preserve, and how by changing, they will be able to maintain the status quo.  Often, this is sold by consultants as the burning platform pitch.  If you don’t change what you’re doing, then because your platform is currently burning, you will end up losing everything.  Although this may feel like a very negative approach to motivation, this is more likely to engage those with a ‘Play to Protect’ preference.

Loss Aversion Bias

Loss aversion bias is recognised as a common issue in decision-making.  When you understand your own motivational style, use it to get more of what you want out of life. I’m happy to take risks for future benefits, but my wife wants to avoid taking risks that could threaten things that are important to her.  Now that I know this, I will try to properly evaluate what I could lose and what the real cost of the loss will be.  I will drill down to the worst-case scenario. When trying to persuade my wife to buy into some significant change, I recognise that by ensuring we explore the worst that could happen, she can get to a point where she faces the possible loss and then consider whether it is survivable.  But I will also seek to explore how making this change will enable her to hold on to the things that are most important to her and how avoiding the change may put them at risk.

Implications for your Organisation

At an organisational level you may see that because of bad experiences in the past, the organisation has a strong bias towards ‘Play to Protect’.  As a leader, you may want to lead them through a process where they start to recognise this bias and can choose to respond differently.  On the other hand, you may be part of an organisation with a very high propensity to take risks, because people are strongly motivated to ‘Play to Win’.  I have seen this behaviour on trading desks in financial institutions.  Then your role as a leader may be to help people to assess those risks more widely and to ensure that the most important things are protected as they step into the new.

Why Motivation Style Matters

As I write this in March 2023, Silicon Valley Bank, a top 20 US bank, has just gone bust.  The CEO had been very successful as head of the bank’s ‘Play to Win’ venture capital division.  It is easy to speculate that, as the CEO, he had failed to adapt to the ‘Play to Protect’ requirement of a regulated licenced deposit taker to hedge their interest rate risks.

Character is not fixed, but it is a preference. As individuals, teams and organisations, we can both recognise our preferences and then moderate our response to situations, recognising that we can shift our preferences by adapting over time.

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Charles McLachlan is the founder of FuturePerfect and on a mission to transform the future of work and business. The Portfolio Executive programme is a new initiative to help executives build a sustainable and impactful second-half-career. Creating an alternative future takes imagination, design, organisation and many other thinking skills. Charles is happy to lend them to you.