One of my friends was recently told by her manager “I want you to carry on with a smile on your face and no complaining”. Previously she’s raised problems when implementing a new system and been told that she “doesn’t like change”. Another friend of mine was constantly told to “not be so negative” when her bosses presented their strategic plans and she highlighted logistical difficulties and unexpected consequences. Both people felt undervalued and miserable in their jobs.

I’ve worked with both these people: you give them a job and it will be done, when you expect it, to a very high level of quality; and they are both proactive about improving how work is done. I’d hire them in a second and trust them to make my business succeed.

So why are they being labelled as negative? Why aren’t they listened to and valued?

Different motivation styles

Ten years ago I learnt the LAB Profile, a powerful model for categorising people’s communication and behavioural traits. If the traits match, people communicate easily; they find it easier to listen, to be listened to and to be motivated by what’s being discussed. If the traits are mismatched, people can misunderstand each other and get frustrated. And the interesting thing is that, to have effective teams, you need a mix of traits.

So what’s happening for my friends and their managers?

The motivation trait that’s relevant here is Direction, which is simply: Is this person’s motivational energy focused on goals or on problems?

There are two patterns, Away From and Towards, and about 80% of people have strong tendencies to one or the other (in a particular context) and about 20% of people swap between the two.

Away From

When someone is Away From, they notice what should be avoided and gotten rid of. They are motivated by problems to be solved and “threats” (such as deadlines). They are great at troubleshooting, fixing problems and pinpointing obstacles in planning. However, they can get easily distracted from their goals because they will drop everything to fix a problem. If they are at the top of a department or organisation then the entire organisation will be run by crisis management.


When someone is Towards, they think in terms of goals. They are motivated to have, get and achieve. They are great at setting goals and (usually) at managing priorities. However, they can have difficulty recognising potential problems and, at the extreme, can be perceived as being naive.

Understanding miscommunication

With this simple model, we can understand what was happening with my friends. At work, they both exhibit the Away From pattern – they are great problem solvers, and one of them ran an IT support desk, which has got to be one of the best jobs for a problem-fixer that I can think of. Their managers exhibit very strong Towards patterns – they are highly focussed on goals.

When the two patterns collide, it’s easy for Towards people to see the Away Froms as “negative” and blocking their goals and it’s easy for the Away Froms to see the Towards as naive for ignoring the problems.

Add in the authority of management (and a couple of other motivation traits that I won’t go into here) and we have two talented people frustrated at not being listened to and two managers annoyed by their staff “being negative”.

What to do to be more influential

What do you do if you find yourself in a situation like this?

The first step is to recognise the two patterns and, if you are mismatched, change your language to match the other pattern. Think of it as having to translate to a foreign language for the other person to understand you.

For example, if you tend to notice problems, instead of saying “That won’t work, the staff will hate it” you can change your language to be about reaching the goal and a necessary subgoal: “To make that work, we’ll need to engage the staff and overcome their objections”.

And if you tend to think in terms of goals, instead of saying “We’re going to a bright new future where everyone is more productive” you can change your language to be about the problems you’re fixing: “We need to fix the slow computer systems and the fact that decisions take more than a week to make”.

I’m describing this as very black and white and simple, and that’s a good way to start learning to spot the patterns and to flex your approach. In reality, you’ll want to use a mix of both styles to engage everyone and in some situations one style will fit better than the other.

What to do if you’re the manger

If you’re a manager, it’s important to value the different patterns and that some people are very good at one and not the other. The leadership challenge is to value the patterns that are different to yours – because you probably don’t understand them and may find them annoying. Yet, if you harness that diversity you’ll have rounded and highly motivated teams.

If you are chairing a meeting, it can be useful to allocate time and/or roles based on these patterns. For example “we’re going to discuss the goals and plan for the next hour and then, after the break, we’ll spend the next hour finding all the problems and obstacles”. Or, if someone keeps raising problems, “You are very good at spotting the problems, can I give you the official role of problem finder? Let’s discuss this for 10 minutes and then we’ll hand it over to you to tell us everything that’s wrong”


We just looked at one motivational trait, Direction. The LAB Profile has 13 traits to explore. And for managing meetings, you can get more sophisticated in structuring them by traits like these. Using De Bono’s Thinking Hats or the Disney Creativity Strategy are examples.

Recently I’ve been running workshops and programmes that help teams explore individual differences, fix the misunderstandings and frustrations and create ways of working that use the differences as strengths to maximise the team’s performance and motivation. Whether you’ve got a team problem you need fixed or you aspire to have great teams, feel free to contact me to take it further.

Oh, and what happened to my friends?

One of them took the model above and practised translating her problems into more goal-oriented language. She got a positive reaction from her management and comments on how she’d really changed her attitude.

It’s a shame the managers didn’t understand what had happened and use it to get better motivation and performance from all their staff.

What next?


Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at

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