Motivational Traits

Motivation refers to an internal set of nonability processes that channel, energize, and sustain behavior over time. Motivation influences the direction (i.e., choice of activities), intensity (i.e., amount of effort), and persistence (i.e., duration of effort) of an individual’s behavior. A trait can be defined as a distinguishable feature of a person’s nature that demonstrates consistency across situations and over time. Traits are often contrasted with states, which are more situation specific and change relatively quickly. That is, a trait exhibits temporal stability and has a similar effect on behavior in different situations, whereas states are much more temporary.

A motivational trait can be defined as a stable and distinguishable feature of an individual that is distinct from cognitive ability yet influences the choice of goal-directed activities, the amount of effort expended on tasks, and the duration of time activities are pursued. Furthermore, a motivational trait has a similar effect on behavior in different situations (e.g., work, recreation, social) and over time (e.g., today and in six months).

Motivational Traits as Distal Influences on Work Behavior

Motivational traits have been shown to predict training outcomes, job performance, and organizational citizenship behaviors. Motivational traits are believed to affect behavior largely through task-specific motivation (i.e., state motivation) and self-regulation (i.e., self-management). Indeed, several studies have shown that motivational traits affect individuals’ self-efficacy (i.e., task-specific confidence), goal choice, and goal commitment (i.e., strength of attachment to a goal). These more state-like motivational factors are then believed to influence performance In addition, some researchers have argued that motivational traits affect performance through task-specific self-regulatory processes, such as motivation control (i.e., keeping motivation high by creating personal rewards or challenges), emotion management (i.e., preventing worry and negative emotions from interfering with performance), mental focus (i.e., staying focused on the task), and metacognition (i.e., monitoring one’s learning and progress). In sum, motivational traits are expected to affect work behaviors through task-specific motivation and self-regulation variables.

Motivational Trait Conceptualizations

There is little consensus about which traits best represent dispositional motivation. As a result, several parallel streams of research have developed based on different theories of motivation. Although the particular traits differ across frameworks, many have a foundation in the long-standing distinction between approach and avoidance motivation. Approach motivation refers to a general sensitivity to rewarding stimuli and the tendency to seek out such stimuli. Avoidance motivation refers to a general sensitivity to punishing stimuli and the tendency to move away from such stimuli. Approach and avoidance motivation are considered to be independent such that individuals can be high on both, low on both, or high on one and low on the other.

The following sections provide a brief overview of some recent and influential motivational trait conceptualizations. This overview is not intended to be comprehensive but to describe traits that are grounded in well-articulated motivation theories. This overview does not include personality traits that are very broad in focus, tapping more than motivation (e.g., conscientiousness includes the motivation variable of achievement striving, as well as nonmotivation variables such as competence, order, and dutifulness), or traits that affect motivation only in particular situations (e.g., openness to experience may yield strong motivation to explore a new city, but it may not lead to strong motivation to perform a familiar work task).

Behavioral Activation System and Behavioral Inhibition System

Jeffrey Gray developed a theory of motivation based on evidence from physiological research. This theory argues that motivational traits are captured by the behavioral activation system (BAS) and the behavioral inhibition system (BIS), which correspond to approach and avoidance motivation, respectively. High-BAS individuals tend to seek out rewarding activities and have a strong drive to attain goals. These individuals exhibit impulsivity, sensation seeking, and a tendency to experience positive emotions (e.g., hope, happiness, elation). High-BIS individuals strive to avoid threatening or punishing situations, leading to low levels of goal-directed behavior and the experience of negative emotions (e.g., fear, frustration, sadness). Measures of BIS and BAS sensitivity have been linked to distinct areas of the prefrontal lobe, supporting the biological foundation of these traits. Although the BIS-BAS framework represents perhaps the most basic model of approach and avoidance motivation, it has received no attention in the organizational research.

Goal Orientation

The concept of goal orientation was originally developed by Carol Dweck. Goal orientation refers to differences in the way people interpret and respond to achievement situations. Because it focuses on learning and achievement, this concept has become one of the most widely studied motivational trait frameworks in organizational research. Generally, individuals adopt either a learning goal orientation (LGO) or a performance goal orientation (PGO). Individuals high in LGO wish to develop their knowledge, skills, and competence on tasks and believe that ability is changeable. This orientation is considered an approach motivation trait. Individuals high in PGO seek to demonstrate their competence and ability in comparison to others and tend to believe that ability is fixed. This orientation can be divided into approach and avoidance subtraits. Individuals who are high in PGO-approach seek to prove their competence and ability in comparison to others. Individuals who are high in PGO-avoid seek to avoid displays of incompetence and negative judgments from others. Although goal orientation has been shown to predict a variety of work outcomes, there is some debate as to whether it is best conceptualized as a trait, a state, or something in between (i.e., a contextualized trait).

Motivational Traits

Ruth Kanfer and colleagues developed a theory of motivational traits based on the approach and avoidance distinction but with an emphasis on organizational applications. In addition, they developed a corresponding measure, the Motivational Trait Questionnaire, which measures individual differences in motivation across three domains: personal mastery, competitive excellence, and motivation related to anxiety. Personal mastery is an approach trait comprising a desire to learn subtrait (i.e., the need to achieve in the context of learning) and a mastery subtrait (i.e., the desire for continuous task improvement). Competitive excellence is made up of an other referenced goals subtrait (i.e., looking to others to determine how well one is performing), which is a mix of approach and avoidance motivation, and a competitiveness subtrait (i.e., a focus on competition and outperforming others), which is an approach trait. Motivation related to anxiety is an avoidance-oriented trait and is made up of a worry subtrait (i.e., worrying about being evaluated in performance contexts) and an emotionality subtrait (i.e., experiencing emotions in an evaluation situation). Kanfer and colleagues provided construct validity evidence for the scales, but no research has examined whether the scales predict job performance.

Action-State Orientation

Action-state orientation was first described by Julius Kuhl as part of a larger theory of action control. Action-state orientation reflects differences in the ability to manage one’s goal-directed behaviors over time and comprises three dimensions: preoccupation, hesitation, and volatility. Action-oriented individuals are generally more effective than state-oriented individuals. Preoccupation refers to differences in one’s ability to disengage from thoughts regarding failure or alternative goals and states. State-oriented individuals cannot easily disengage from negative thoughts, whereas action-oriented individuals put such thoughts out of mind and move forward with new activities. The hesitation dimension reflects differences in one’s ability to initiate action on already chosen tasks. Action-oriented individuals are able to easily begin work on tasks, whereas state-oriented individuals have difficulty starting activities. The volatility dimension pertains to the ability to persist in tasks until they are completed. Action-oriented individuals finish activities, whereas state-oriented individuals stop activities before they are completed. Research has demonstrated that action-state orientation predicts job performance, classroom performance, and job attitudes.

Regulatory Focus

  1. Tory Higgins and colleagues developed regulatory focus theory, which argues that individuals differ in their propensity to be promotion focused and prevention focused. Promotion-focused individuals seek to minimize differences between their actual and ideal selves (e.g., hopes, aspirations), and prevention-focused individuals seek to minimize differences between their actual and “ought” selves (e.g., duties, responsibilities). Individuals who are high in promotion focus seek out their desires and strive for personal growth. As a result, promotion-focused individuals experience eagerness when striving for goals, joy when goals are attained, and sadness when goals are not attained. Individuals who are high in prevention focus see goals as obligations and are concerned with maintaining security and avoiding losses. As a result, prevention-focused individuals tend to be cautious when striving for goals, feel relaxed when goals are attained, and experience nervousness when goals are not attained. Applications of this theory to organizational research are just beginning, with most efforts focused on theory development.


Edward Deci and Richard Ryan’s self-determination theory distinguishes between intrinsically motivated behavior (i.e., activities that are performed because they are enjoyable) and extrinsically motivated behavior (i.e., activities that are performed to receive some external reward). Self-determination theory describes three traits that are related to intrinsic and extrinsic motivation: autonomy orientation, control orientation, and impersonal orientation.

Autonomy orientation refers to differences in the extent to which individuals regulate their behavior based on personal interests and preferences. Autonomy-oriented individuals seek opportunities to satisfy their personal needs and desires. As a result, they tend to experience intrinsic motivation, feelings of competence, and task enjoyment. Control orientation refers to differences in the extent to which individuals regulate behavior based on external constraints and controls. Control-oriented individuals perceive that others control their behaviors. As a result, these individuals experience extrinsic motivation and little task enjoyment. Impersonal orientation refers to the extent to which individuals focus on information that suggests they are incompetent and will not succeed. Impersonal-oriented individuals believe that they cannot do well and therefore experience neither intrinsic nor extrinsic motivation. This lack of motivation leads to a sense of helplessness, depressed mood, and low levels of goal-directed action. Initial research on this topic has shown that these traits predict job performance and employee well-being.


Motivational traits are stable, nonability characteristics that influence the direction, intensity, and persistence of individuals’ goal-directed behaviors across situations. Motivational traits are thought to affect behavior through task-specific motivation and self-regulation. Several motivational trait frameworks exist, each deriving from a different theory of motivation. One avenue for future research would be to develop an integrative model of motivational traits that consolidates these approaches into a comprehensive framework.


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