The role of regulatory focus on performance in organizations

What motivates people, and when do they perform optimally at work? Dagmar Beudeker approached these two questions during her doctoral research from the perspective of the Regulatory Focus Theory. Her research shows that performance in organizations is dependent on a person’s and a leader’s regulatory focus. She will defend her dissertation on January 15.

Regulatory focus theory

A highly influential theory on self-regulation is Regulatory Focus Theory. This theory proposes that people’s self-regulation towards goal attainment (at work and in general) is guided by two regulatory orientations: a promotion orientation and a prevention orientation. When people self-regulate by using a promotion orientation they are motivated by nurturance and achievement needs. When people self-regulate by using a prevention orientation they are motivated by safety and security needs.

Regulatory orientations in organizations

Much of the prior research on regulatory focus and performance has been conducted in the lab. A central goal of Dagmar’s dissertation is to investigate how regulatory orientations relate to the performance of people in complex organizational environments. Not only do people in organizations have individual regulatory preferences, but they work on tasks that have regulatory characteristics (i.e. promotion and prevention tasks) and they are being managed by leaders who have their own regulatory orientations. Little is known about how these different aspects interact to influence performance in organizations.

Which orientation is better?

Dagmar also aims to draw attention to the tendency in many organizational settings to accentuate and reward behaviors relating to the promotion orientation. Even though the use of the promotion orientation has been shown to give rise to valuable work behaviors such as being innovative,
Dagmar argues that a good performance of individuals as well as organizations requires more than just innovative work behavior. A large part of the work in many organizations constitutes ‘doing the due diligence’. Performance on these kind of tasks could benefit from using a prevention orientation. Taking the tasks that people need to perform as a starting point, Dagmar has investigated whether the use of the prevention orientation can be of added value for individual and organizational performance.


The results reported in her dissertation show that there is indeed a high probability that jobs are regulatory heterogeneous (i.e. contain both prevention and promotion oriented tasks). In line with this finding, additional results reveal that performance benefits can be gained when leaders are able to use a prevention orientation. Arguably, the use of the promotion orientation in leaders is already facilitated by organizational dynamics. As such, there is little added value in the individual’s inclination to adopt this orientation. The prevention orientation on the other hand, helps leaders fulfill a broader range of goals associated with their complex task. Finally Dagmar tested two interventions that can be used (by leaders or fellow employees) to optimize individual performance on tasks that do not fit people’s regulatory preferences. With the help of performance incentives and work strategy guidelines, promotion oriented people were able to perform well at a non-fit prevention task.

Last Modified: 13-01-2015