by Paul Matthews

Towards or away

We all move towards or away from the consequences of an activity.

If the anticipated consequences are painful or unwanted, we will move away from them by doing things to avoid them. If the anticipated consequences are pleasurable, we will do things to attain them: we will move towards them.

You might think that this would be a nice evenly-balanced calculation, but it isn’t. Interestingly, some people will focus more on the pain and give it much greater weight than the pleasure, and vice versa.

Key point

Some people are typically more focused on avoiding pain than gaining pleasure, and some do it the other way around by being motivated more towards pleasure than away from pain.

This has some interesting implications when you are seeking to understand and change the motivation of yourself or others.

Carrot and stick

Have you noticed that if you wave a carrot or reward in front of several people, they will seek the reward with different levels of intensity? Indeed, some may not even bother to try and get the reward at all.

The same applies if you wave a stick or punishment in front of the same people.

Imagine a continuum between carrot and stick – or towards and away – and we can all be placed somewhere on that continuum. For example, in the diagram below, Tom puts much more weight on the positive consequences of an activity and seeks to move towards what he wants. Sue puts more weight on the negative consequences of an activity and seeks to move away from what she does not want.

In western cultures, about 40 per cent us are like Tom, about 40 per cent are like Sue; the rest of us are in the middle, with no strong bias.

People can also have a different towards or away bias depending on the context. For example, a person might be mostly towards when it comes to anything to do with a hobby. That is, they do their hobby for the sheer enjoyment of doing it. The same person might be motivated away from within the context of exercise; that is, they go to the gym because they want to avoid getting fat and unhealthy.

Using towards and away language

If you present an activity to someone, they will immediately and unconsciously set a motivation level for that activity. You can greatly influence that internal calculation and subsequent motivation level with the way you present that activity to them.

We have established that Tom and Sue react differently to the carrot and the stick. We need to present things to them in a way that utilises their preference, or rather, utilises the different weightings they use in their internal calculations to decide what level of motivation to apply to an activity.

What most people do in any attempt to raise the motivation level in someone else is to present an activity in a way that would work with themselves. This will work some of the time, but not always, as people are different.

The first step is to assess whether you have a Tom or a Sue to deal with. That is, are they predominantly ‘towards’ or ‘away from’?


You can discover whether they are a ‘towards’ or ‘away from’ person by listening to how they talk about things, particularly within the context of the activity you wish to present to them. Do they talk about what will be gained or what will be avoided?

Once you start listening for this, it is quite easy to tell.

Once you know which type they are, you need to present the activity in a manner that matches their way of looking at the world. Let’s say you want to delegate a task that involves doing a report.

For an ‘away from’ person you could say...

We need to get this report done by Friday because if we don’t, we won’t be able to send it to XYZ customer and we are likely to lose their business.

Notice that this all about what we want to avoid. We are giving full weighting to the potential pain we would experience if the task is not done.

For a ‘towards’ style person, you could say...

We need to get this report done by Friday so we can send it to XYZ customer. This will put us in a very good position to win that extension to the contract.

Notice that this is about what is to be gained from doing the task.

If you are delegating to someone who does not have an obvious bias, use a bit of both styles of language. You would also use both when you are talking to or writing for a group of people. Here, the most effective approach is to first say what you don’t want and then continue with what you do want: ‘We can’t afford to miss this deadline so let’s get focused on the task in hand and get this order processed.’ People will tend to hear just the statements that resonate with them and match their preferences.

Towards versus away

When people first learn about towards and away motivation directions, they usually ask ‘Which one is best?’ or ‘Which one is most effective?’

Like most things to do with motivation, there is no easy answer. It depends...

Away from – advantages

Away from motivation tends to kick in quicker and with more initial force. It is directly coupled to the survival instinct to stay out of the jaws of a predator and avoid harm to the body. Away from motivation is what is in play when we snatch our hand out of water that is too hot, or leap back onto the pavement when we catch sight of a fast-approaching car out of the corner of our eye.

When raising the motivation in others to do something, the stick/away from approach can be useful when something needs to be done fast and compliance is good enough. It is the ‘just do it now’ approach. In some circumstances, this motivational tool, which comes out of the command-and-control style of management, is absolutely appropriate.

Away from – disadvantages

However, basic compliance seldom gets the job done well and this kind of motivation fades. People get acclimatised to the size of the hovering big stick and react less to it. You can, of course, proceed to increase the size of the stick, but this escalation leads to stress and burnout as people spend their time immersed in fear of the painful consequences.

Another problem is that doing the activity can often change the situation, lessening the potential pain. For example, when you get your in-tray down to a manageable size, the negative consequences of just leaving it get less and less threatening as the stack of paper in the tray dwindles. Eventually, there is little motivation to continue clearing the tray, so some other activity trumps it and takes precedence. The tray is then not touched for a few days until it builds up and the potential consequences of not doing are again enough to motivate activity.

This leads to a cyclic motivation pattern when doing a specific activity. This cyclical motivation can be very noticeable in sales people, who really pull the stops out towards the end of the month to hit the numbers and thus the commission they require to pay the mortgage.


Towards motivation tends to have a slower burn, but is much more durable over the longer term and is thus much more appropriate for bigger and longer-term goals.

Towards does not have the stressful side effects of long-term away from motivation; in fact, the excitement and happiness it creates lead to well-being and health. It is towards motivation that will get someone out of bed in the morning, keen to tackle the day. It is towards motivation that will keep someone going through the tough times as they focus on a bigger and grander goal. It is towards motivation that will get an athlete out to train in bad weather and get you through a tough task at work when you know it is a necessary part of something bigger.

People often say that motivation doesn’t last. Well, neither does bathing – that’s why we recommend it daily.

Zig Ziglar

The best way to get more towards motivation into your life is to get some really big goals that just get you grinning from ear to ear whenever you think of them – see the topic on Goal Setting to learn how to do this.

It is interesting to combine the concept of towards and away with McClelland’s theory of motivation.