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What is Emotivation?

Emotivation is simply an idea that connect emotions and motivations, rather than treating them as separate and unrelated.

Our concept of emotivation is based on Reversal Theory (e.g. Apter, 2001) which suggests that our emotional experiences are driven by motivational states or ‘styles’. Specifically, there are eight comprehensive ‘ways of being’ that can be explored in terms of both emotions and motivations; but also related aspects such as values, sensations, avatars (embodied roles) and team climates.

Emotivation provides diagnostic insight and can open up solutions to almost any problem that involves people at work. Examples include employee engagement, change, team dynamics, leadership and management, stress or performance. More importantly, perhaps, emotivation is a concept that can provide a common language that unifies all aspects of people management. We believe that it helps make sense of what can be a confusing and contradictory landscape.

Is emotivation really a new concept?

While it is well established in psychology that mental states and emotional states are connected, very few theories have attempted to describe the relationship between the two. Reversal Theory does this, proposing eight motivational styles that combine to drive sixteen emotions – eight of which are pleasant and represent satisfied motivations and eight unpleasant, representing frustrated motivations. Even unpleasant emotions such as anxiety or guilt can, however, play a positive role in driving action.

The Apter Emotivation Framework



Motivation and emotion: “Divorced streams” in psychology

As Beall and Tracy (2017) acknowledge, despite the fact that emotions and motivations appear to be intimately linked they generally represent ‘divorced streams of work’ in psychology.  Research using Reversal Theory has been an exception to this rule for more than thirty years, however.  As practitioners we have been using the term ’emotivation’ for some years, to describe a set of broad emotions that can be defined in terms of satisfied or unsatisfied motivations (Lunacek, 2105/16).

Beall and Tracy suggest that emotions motivate behaviour, which we would not argue with. This is the more typical view of motivation as something that drives and directs our behaviour.

However, Reversal Theory also proposes that motivations act as lenses through which we perceive any situation, and this drives our emotions. This is a different view of motivation or, more precisely, of the basic motives behind a motivation to act. For example, if you’re motivated to earn money, you may be doing so for long-term security, to have nice experiences, to look after your family, and so on.

It is whether these motivations are satisfied or frustrated (or indeed if we anticipate that they will be) that determines whether emotional experience is pleasant or unpleasant (a form of stress).


Motivation as a driver of emotion



Whether or you are interested in this “chicken or egg” academic debate, it is clear that there is value in understanding behaviour in terms of both motivation and emotion because it improves diagnostic precision and opens up different strategies for action. The more precisely we can understand these interactions – which manifest themselves in almost all aspects of work – the better the solutions that we can provide to a range of problems.


Why is emotivation important?

As alluded to already, HR professionals and other leaders are struggling to manage what appears to be a long laundry list of people issues in the workplace: Employee engagement / Experience / EVP / Brand, performance management, leadership and management, stress / well-being, culture, values, change management, collaboration & teamwork.. and so on. Perhaps because of commercial or academic competition, these are generally presented as separate issues which just adds complexity to the role of an HR leader.

What really matters? In truth, most people issues are not separate at all, but are highly interrelated and share something in common: Emotivation. In other words, they all have motivational and / or emotional components and a common language of emotivation can help navigate this often confusing landscape.


Emotivation in HR & OD practice

Let’s take a look at how the concept of emotivation can help illuminate HR & OD practice.


Employee Engagement, Experience, EVP & Employer Brand


EmotionsOne of the most confusing (and confused) areas of HR must Employee Engagement and all of the members o fits dysfunctional family. Ultimately, employee engagement is concerned with what motivates or de-motivates your employees. What does this? Their experience, which is emotional.  EVP captures how you, or intend to, provide a more motivating or satisfying experience (and your employer brand is how you present this to the outside world). Emotivation provides a common language to create a more coherent and consistent view of the kind of experience that you want to promote.


Culture & Strategy


ValuesVery simply, culture is based on shared values (motivations) that drive behaviour in your organisation . Whether your culture is working or not is ultimately something that you can feel. It’s emotional. However, where emotivation adds value to the debate is that different motivations enable us to contribute in different ways at work, which means that it can help better align culture and strategy. For example, if the business strategy implies that that more innovation or collaboration is needed, we know which motivations promote these capabilities and therefore what kind of an environment we need – or HOW we engage people.


Leadership and Climate


avatar climateClimate is a close relative of culture, and we describe it as a collective state of mind. In that sense, it is more dynamic and immediate than culture. Again, it can be described in terms of motivation and emotion. And what is leadership, other than the ability influence (motivate) people to follow?


Whether they will follow you or not (motivation) is largely driven by how you make people feel (emotion) or the climate that you create.


Change Management

There are plenty of change management frameworks and methodologies out there, but they tend to focus on the process of managing behaviour change. Generally, there’s a strong theme running through these approaches, which is the motivation to change, but often little to actually help the practitioner optimise motivation. Emotivation can be applied across the whole change journey, from initiation through to implementation, creating the right conditions for change, developing a compelling vision for different audience, engaging effectively and better understanding why people resist change (for starters).


Emotional wellbeing

It should be pretty clear by now that there’s a pattern emerging. Emotional wellbeing at work cannot be disconnected from concepts such as engagement, culture and leadership. That’s because the workplace is a human system.  All aspects of work are parts of that system, what we do, who we do it with, where we do it, how we’re managed, and so on.


Cutting through the complexity of people management

If the workplace is a human, or emotivational, system it’s surely unhelpful or unrealistic to look at each of its components using a load of different, often competing, frameworks. All that does is add complexity, and most of it is unnecessary. Emotivation enables us to look holistically at that system, using one framework.


Therefore, by considering the whole, and by focusing on the role that motivation and emotions play within it, it’s possible to cut through the confusion and more precisely define human problems and their solutions. What’s more, it can help with the implementation too!


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M. J. Apter (Ed.),Motivational styles in everyday life: A guide to reversal theory (pp. 3-35). Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/10427-001

Beall, AT,  Tracy, JL.  Emotivational psychology: How distinct emotions facilitate fundamental motives. Soc Personal Psychol Compass.  2017; 11: e12303. https://doi.org/10.1111/spc3.12303

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