"Then Out Spake Brave Horatius…" Horatius Cocles Leads the Romans in Battle against the Etruscans, Tommaso Minardi, early to mid 1800’s
Ideas for Leaders #649

Crisis Communication: Emphasize the Positive

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Key Concept

People are more open to messages that fit their motivational impulses, such as the tendency to avoid risk or the desire to achieve stretch goals. New research reveals that this rule of thumb does not apply to times of crises, when, no matter your usual motivational tendencies, positive goal-oriented messages prevail.

Idea Summary

Some people are motivated by growth goals — goals that reflect aspirations and ambitions. In psychological terms, these people are promotion-oriented. In contrast, prevention-oriented people are motivated by goals that stress responsibility and safety. The word ‘prevention’ is used since their motivation is often framed by something they want to avoid. For example, prevention-oriented people are risk-averse — they want to avoid negative outcomes that could result from taking risks. Promotion-oriented people are more likely to be risk takers, focusing on achieving the potentially positive outcomes of that risk.

Not surprisingly, promotion-oriented people are more likely to be moved by promotion-oriented communication: communication that is aspirational and inspiring. Likewise, prevention-oriented people are more likely to be moved by prevention-oriented communication: communication that stresses safety and the status quo. For example, a car advertisement that stresses speed and style will appeal to promotion-oriented people, while a car advertisement that stresses the automaker’s safety record will appeal to prevention-oriented people.

A research team recently discovered, however, that this rule of thumb does not necessarily apply to communication in times of crises. While there was little difference in the preferences of promotion-oriented people, the research data collected and analysed showed that during a crisis, prevention-oriented people responded better to promotion-oriented communication.

To understand this unexpected result, the team revisited past research on motivation theory, especially the concept of regulatory fit. In psychological terms, people ‘regulate’ themselves — they control their thoughts, emotions and behaviours — based on their ‘regulatory focus’, that is, their preference for promotion- or prevention-orientation.

When someone’s internal motivation aligns with an external influence — for example, a promotion-oriented person reads promotion-oriented communication — the result is called ‘regulatory fit’.

The data in the new research revealed that for prevention-oriented people, regulatory misfit was more effective during a crisis: prevention-oriented people responded better to promotion-oriented communication. This was especially surprising since one would think that during times of crises, prevention orientation — avoiding harm — would carry more weight than promotion orientation — aspiring to achieve something great.

The research team found the explanation to this unexpected result in previous research on relationships, which showed regulatory fit is not necessarily positive. Instead, it only intensifies emotions, both positive and negative. For example, if two promotion-oriented people dislike each other, that animosity will be even more intense than any animosity between a promotion-oriented person and a prevention-oriented person.

Intensity was the key. During a crisis, prevention-oriented people are acutely aware of the negatives: outcomes are bad, the future is uncertain, people endure losses not gains, etc. In this environment, prevention-oriented communication has the effect of intensifying the negativity. This piling on of negativity further distresses prevention-oriented people, which is why they (uncharacteristically) prefer positive messaging.

Through various experiments, the research team showed that this negative response to negative messages reflects on the messenger. In one experiment, for example, U.S. presidents who were promotion-oriented were more likely to be re-elected in times of crises than presidents who were prevention-oriented — even though the crisis caused the electorate to be more prevention-oriented than usual.

Business Application

The best leaders recognize that people are different. Some people are more motivated by aspirational goals, while others prefer safety, calm, and taking fewer risks. The power of regulatory fit extends beyond tailoring corporate communication to regulatory focus. For example, if you want people to be greater risk-takers but your organization punishes risk-taking, people will be motivated to play it safe. The reason: there is a regulatory misfit between how you want people to behave and the environment you created.

Risk-taking is just one example that shows why the best leaders and the best organizations avoid regulatory misfit. This research, however, reveals that there is an exception to the rule: in times of crises, regulatory misfit can work for certain people.

This means that in a crisis, even those who tend to more careful and safety-conscious need — paradoxically — more aspirational, positive communication from you and the organization. Focusing on how to avoid harm is only going to remind them that there is harm all around. Offer instead a message that focuses on hope and resolution, on the light at the end of the tunnel, and on the inevitable success of the organization.

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Idea conceived

  • July 2016

Idea posted

  • March 2017

DOI number



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