“What motivates you more, fear or hope?”

If you’re a professional currently starting up a job hunt (or can think back to when this was the case), which of these statements would likely have a greater motivational impact on you?

“If you buckle down, get focused, and work really hard at selling yourself, you might find your next job sooner than most people.”

“If you DON’T buckle down, get serious, and work really hard at selling yourself, you may not find another job for quite a long time.”

Lately, I’ve been pondering this question a lot, since it’s not clear to me what motivates the average person to a greater degree — the hope of success or the fear of failure.  While I suppose many people would immediately point to “hope” as the superior motivating force (it’s certainly a more pleasant notion) I’m not sold on the fact that this is universally true.  After all, when I look at my own life and some of the cases when I’ve been motivated to accomplish great things, a lot of times there’s been an undercurrent of fear spurring me to action.  My “fear of failure” led me to get pretty darn good grades in school.  My “fear of looking silly” usually compels me to prepare extra-hard before delivering presentations.  And my “fear of letting people down” likely accounts for why I typically try to go the extra mile in assisting my clients, even beyond the contractual agreement in place.

What’s more, if we segue over to the sporting world for a second, there seems to be plenty of additional evidence suggesting that both hope and fear can be highly effective motivators.  On one hand, you’ve got famous coaches such as Bobby Knight, Mike Ditka, and Lou Pinella whose intimidating temperaments prodded numerous teams on to win world championships.  According to legend, if you let any of these coaches down, or didn’t perform up to their expectations, you’d suffer the consequences of their wrath and would get BLASTED in the locker room in front of all your peers.  That’s a pretty compelling scenario to avoid.  But on the flip side, we could also point to plenty of kinder, gentler coaches such as John Wooden or Pete Carroll whose upbeat, rah-rah-rah style also seemed capable of producing impressive results.  Sure, Coach Carroll’s USC reign will always have an asterisk next to it due to certain recruiting irregularities, but you’ve still got to hand it to the guy for building a college sports dynasty almost single-handedly, based on charisma and a positive leadership style.

So which motivational philosophy do YOU respond to more effectively?  The carrot or the stick?  Or perhaps a balance of both, at times?

If you can figure out a clear answer to this, based on your own life history to date, this could be an important key in your job search success.   Why?  Because at the end of the day, the majority of job hunters will need to muster up the motivational drive to get out of their comfort zone and consistently do things they DON’T like to do (e.g. promote themselves assertively, network with strangers, make cold calls, etc.) in order to find their next position within a reasonable time frame.  And if they have even more ambitious goals, such as beating the average U.S. job search length (34 weeks) by a significant margin, or finding themselves a GREAT job, not just a mediocre one, they’ll need to summon up even deeper inspirational reserves.  Long story short, they’ll need to change their “normal” behavior in a big way.  And changing one’s behavior requires gobs of motivation since as human beings, we’re used to sticking to our guns and doing things the way we’re most comfortable with, especially if this behavior has rewarded us, historically, with years of success in the working world.

Understanding your motivational tendencies can also have significant consequences if you choose to invest in career coaching — or coaching of any kind, for that matter.  For those of us who advise other people for a living, it can be tough to sort out, at first, whether a person will respond best to positive encouragement or whether they might instead be wired to excel only when “kicked into gear” through a more hard-hitting style of communication.  In my many years of coaching, I’ve definitely seen both types of individuals and can usually figure out pretty quickly which style is more effective for a given client, but every now and then I’ll guess wrong — and immediately see the impact this has on the commitment level of the person across the desk.

So for this reason, I’d encourage every professional in transition to think hard about their own motivational hot buttons.  Will you be more likely to achieve peak performance if you are “pulled” towards a positive vision of the future or “pushed” to action out of a desire to avoid scary or negative consequences?  Such insights will not only help you design a job search methodology and framework that keeps you as productive as possible, but will also help you determine the types of people — upbeat optimists or no-holds-barred taskmasters — to try and surround yourself with during your re-employment journey!