Review: Individual differences in work motivation: Further explorations of a trait framework.

Kanfer, R. and Ackerman, P. L. (2000) Applied psychology: An international review, 49 (3), 470-482


This paper furthers research described elsewhere, including by the authors, in linking traits with motivation, as well as adding evidence from a new survey.

Summary of key points

The paper recognises differences between appetitive (approach) goals and aversive (avoidance) goals, but only discusses them as conscious constructs, seeking to link the influence of those opposites to traits that are formed and owned by individuals as a part of their personality.

It respectfully identifies the validity of the Five-Factor Model of Personality favoured by many psychologists, but places it as a contextual, rather than influential idea. It also seeks to compare concepts around approach and avoidance schemas with “motivational traits”, finding some linkages to workplace performance. Usefully, it showed no strong link between IQ and motivational traits, suggesting that motivational traits do not arise from conscious planning and deliberation.

The questionnaire used has some problems. For example, the question “I set high standards for myself and work toward achieving them” is unlikely to receive an objectively accurate response from most participants. However, other example questions provided in the paper seem likely to have been answered more reliably, and there is every reason to think that the data generated is reasonably accurate.

Some findings are interesting. For example, competitive excellence and anxiety were inversely related. They theorized that competitiveness aligned with outperforming others probably saw a positive response, where competition aligned to fear of failure saw a negative response. In other words, the situation didn’t change but the attitude, and therefore response, toward it did.

Differences in trait patterns were identified, such as middle-aged females being less competitive than their younger or male counterparts, and that younger people are more likely to be more achievement-oriented, and females reporting higher levels of mastery and emotionality. It also suggests that individuals who have high trait levels of motivation generally are more likely to experience higher levels of conflict and other workplace problems, with women accompanying challenges with worry (and presumably avoidance responses) than men.

The paper also explored correlations between intelligence (measured as fluid and crystallised intelligence) and perceptions of personal mastery but didn’t make meaningful links. This may have been through the phenomena whereby those with higher levels of knowledge more readily recognise their own deficits, whereas those who don’t know what they don’t know can easily overestimate their knowledge and competence, a challenge for subjective personal assessments worded in this way.


The concept of personality and motivation resulting from traits that are inherent in individuals is mostly supported and slightly refuted by neurobiology. Certainly, the development of at least semi-fixed response patterns is supported by DNA encoding, learning (experiential and witnessed), environments and capacity to create synaptic connections (synaptogenesis) and strengthen them into fast and powerful default circuits (myelinogenesis). In this way, the strongest and most frequently used circuits create behavioural habits, which over time can be seen as personality or traits. However, the continual creation and atrophying of connections (neuroplasticity) allows individuals to modify their traits according to their environments and recent experiences. However, with age such changes become more difficult as neural pathways are reinforced and neuroplasticity slows.

The demographic differences discussed are difficult to translate, and in any case such attempts would see employers stereotyping and discriminating, both unacceptable in today’s culture.  However, the linkage of approach and avoidance responses with opportunity and worry are highly useful in understanding how workplaces and management practices can influence how those opposites are moderated. Reinforcement Sensitivity Theory (as described variously by Corr, Gray and McNaughton) outlines this idea well, and there is some neural backing for some aspects, but not others, of their theory. However, this paper doesn’t reference neural mechanisms, or discuss in any detail the impacts on engagement, performance or wellness.

From a practical perspective, the paper doesn’t seek to provide guidance into preferable workplace management practices. However, it successfully separates positivity (approach/avoidance) habits relating to mastery from those taken by the same individuals to achieving competitive excellence, illustrating the safety of enhancing one’s own skills (seeking competence, related to empowerment) in comparison to the risk of failure (seeking to avoid erosion of identity through loss of self-esteem). This is consistent with the energetic, positive attitude of those who have nothing to lose and everything to gain (perhaps a start-up business, or an employee who is provided a safety net in the face of a big challenge), versus those who perceive little gain or high risk (such as a business facing a new competitive threat, or an employee who feels ill-equipped and unsupported).

Of some concern is how the finding about people high in motivational tendencies being more likely to be involved with conflict or other upsets might be seen. On face value, it seems to suggest that highly motivated people are more likely to be troublemakers, because that’s as far as that statement goes. However, as identified in Consistency Theory (as described by Grawe and Rossouw) and the Integrated Model of Employee Engagement, and supported by motivational neuroscience, intrinsically higher motivation results from a reward/loss/risk/effort estimation and is directed towards filling larger gaps between need level and satisfaction, in turn focusing and energising actions to resolve those imbalances. For those with the highest needs, this is likely to see them being the most active, in either avoidance or approach responses, to minimizing or eliminating imbalances. Where they do not feel they have adequate influence or ability to satisfy those high needs, or fear loss more than they value opportunity for enhancement, they are more likely to resort to an avoidance schema, in turn fueling conflicts or upsets, as identified in this paper. However, where they feel empowered within that workplace and in their role to not only protect, but enhance and resolve those imbalances by performing highly desirable self-directed actions in order to receive those higher dopamine-based rewards, they will instead be the highest-performing employees. In this way it can be that employees most likely to be troublesome can often also be the most engaged and productive, subject to environment, stimuli and motivation evaluation and regulation.

A challenge that arose from the research technique is the inaccuracy inherent in all subjective self-assessments, being of preferred identity, lack of self-awareness, poor subjectivity and so on. This highlights the benefits of designing assessments that either detect those things, or that avoid them to the extent it is possible to do so.