How to Improve Motivation by Understanding Your Subconscious

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Last Updated on November 20, 2023 by Bill Truby

When you go to the sink to get a drink of water, are you going to quench your thirst, or to prevent yourself from getting thirsty? This article will help you better understand and learn how to improve your motivation (or affect others) by better understanding your subconscious.

Toward/Away Theory

Many motivational theories try to explain what drives us. The pain/pleasure model, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and the positive/negative reinforcement theory are some.

But there’s another one that has intrigued me for a long time, and I believe it has merit in explaining what makes us tick. 

It’s the “Toward/Away Theory” and says, “We are motivated toward accomplishment or away from difficulty.”

At its core, the theory is simple. But it can seem complex because EITHER motivator can look EXACTLY the same from the outside. One person can buy a car “to accomplish” something – save money with better gas mileage. Another person can buy a car to “prevent difficulty”– stop losing money from higher gas prices. One person wants to save money, the other wants to stop losing money, both buying the exact same car. It’s a subtle difference. But powerful in its effect – and helps to learn how to improve motivation.

Don’t Assume We Are All the Same

Joann and I are both high achievers, but we are motivated differently. I am “toward accomplishment” and she is “away from difficulty.”

We both are fully engaged in helping a company or a person be better. But my motivator likes to accomplish “fixing” the company or person. Joann’s motivator wants to help them prevent the problems they’re experiencing now, so she coaches and grows them.

The first time Joann and I were comparing notes about this theory and realizing how it applied to us, she said, “Wow, now I feel like such a loser!” Of course, she was joking. But people DO put judgment on this theory. They think “toward achievement” is better than “away from difficulty.” But they’re wrong. Neither is better than the other. There isn’t one that’s right and one that’s wrong. Both have equal value.

Now, here’s the main problem associated with this theory – assuming that everyone is motivated the same way you are.

If you use YOUR motivational language and rationale with someone who doesn’t share the same motivational drivers, you will actually DEMOTIVATE them. This problem shows up in all personal or work relationships. 

Leadership Example

Here’s an example of how it can play out in leadership. Let’s say a manager, who is motivated away from difficulty, says to an employee who is motivated toward accomplishment, “If you don’t accomplish this goal, bad things will happen.”

The “toward accomplishment” employee is actually demotivated with that reasoning. However, if the manager says, “Accomplishing this goal will make our key customer extremely happy,” the manager has just lit a motivational fire under the employee’s behavior.

When you don’t speak another person’s motivational language, you demotivate or even paralyze that person.

But how can you know which to use? You don’t need to.

The best way to use this theory is to talk out of BOTH sides of your mouth.

The manager in our previous illustration could say this, “If you accomplish this goal, our key customer will be extremely happy, and we’ll prevent his going to someone else the next time he needs this service.” Now the person is motivated to reach the goal EITHER to make the customer happy OR to prevent losing the customer.

Personal Example

Let me share one more example of how this theory plays out with a story about Joann and me. Though neither of us was conscious about the Toward/Away Theory when this experience occurred, it was clearly in full force.

We had had a problem with the bumper on our car for nearly two years. For me, the maintenance that was needed was to prevent the bumper from getting worse. I wasn’t motivated by that, especially with so many other things on my “to ACCOMPLISH” list. But one day, Joann said, “I just want you to know that I appreciate all the things you accomplish for us. It really makes me feel loved and taken care of.” Then she listed the things that made her feel that way, things I had done or was going to do… and, yes, THE BUMPER was on the list.

Within a couple of hours, I was on my way to the body shop. With just a few words, Joann unknowingly turned a demotivating maintenance project into a motivating achievement project. Now, by getting the bumper fixed, I could show Joann love AND take care of her – accomplishments I strive for daily.

Want to learn more about working with different people? Check out our free Personality Assessment.

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Bill Truby

Founder and President of Truby Achievements