Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 3, Issue 33;   August 13, 2003: Beyond WIIFM

Beyond WIIFM


Probably the most widely used tactic of persuasion, "What's In It For Me," or WIIFM, can be toxic to an organization. There's a much healthier approach that provides a competitive advantage to organizations that use it.
What's in it for him?

An unidentified man defiantly holds off a tank column in Tiananmen Square on June 5, 1989. The incident occurred at about noon that day. Certainly this man was unconcerned about what was in it for him. His focus lay elsewhere. At one point, he was surrounded by a crowd, into which he disappeared. Known only as the "Tank Man" to this day, his identity and fate remain unknown. See the PBS Frontline Web site for more. Photo by Jeff Widener/AP.

In the past decade or so, "What's In It For Me" (WIIFM) acquired its name, and became a dominant tactic of persuasion and motivation in organizations. The underlying idea is that people are best motivated by self-interest. Many believe that whatever we're trying to accomplish organizationally, people are most cooperative when they clearly understand the direct personal benefits that result from compliance or cooperation.

But there's much more to human motivation than WIIFM. We as humans also care about the well being of others, and of the groups we belong to. In part, that's why parents shield their children from danger with their own bodies, why soldiers willingly die for their countries, and why firemen who don't even know us run into burning buildings to save our lives.

Yet in business we now rely on WIIFMs to motivate people for reorganizations, layoffs, downsizing, benefits reductions, office moves and most of the other difficult changes we make in the workplace. This is dangerous, because excessive reliance on WIIFMs can be toxic to an organization.

WIIFMs send a not-so-hidden message
Using WIIFM tactics helps to create or sustain a culture of WIIFM. When we give too much emphasis to WIIFM (and it doesn't take much) we send a secondary not-so-hidden message that acting in one's own self-interest is always acceptable, which implicitly endorses many other behaviors that damage the organization. A WIIFM culture is at a great competitive disadvantage compared with one in which employees are motivated not only by WIIFM, but also by a desire to advance the group.
WIIFMs create questions about the persuader
Persuaders who overuse the WIIFM tactic encourage employees to ask the WIIFM question about the persuader. Since in most organizational cultures, behavior that enhances the greater good without reference to direct personal gain is more prized than WIIFM behavior, encouraging people to examine the persuader's personal motives undermines the persuader's authority and stature. If the belief in personal advantage is strong enough, people can come to doubt the persuader's motives even in the absence of evidence of personal gain.
WIIFM cultural patterns are self-perpetuating
Once a culture becomes There's much more
to human motivation
than WIIFM
WIIFM-oriented, employees interpret management's attempts to change anything in terms of leaders' WIIFMs. We call this "cynicism" when it happens, and it makes changing a WIIFM culture very difficult.

WIIFM tactics do work in the short term. In cultures that acknowledge the value of more selfless motives, employees aren't yet accustomed to questioning the motives of the persuader. But with each use of WIIFM, persuaders re-enforce the WIIFM orientation of the employees, raising the minimum threshold of personal gain required to motivate employees in the future.

A safer approach emphasizes WIIFU — "What's In It For Us." All three elements of our lives — Self, Other, and Group — matter to us all. By giving balanced consideration to all three, leaders can motivate employees to take necessary action in a healthier way. Beware, though — WIIFM leaders create WIIFM cultures. Leaders can use WIIFU only if they live WIIFU. Go to top Top  Next issue: Cellf Esteem  Next Issue

For more on achieving and inspiring goals, see "Corrales Mentales," Point Lookout for July 4, 2001; "Commitment Makes It Easier," Point Lookout for October 16, 2002; "Give It Your All," Point Lookout for May 19, 2004; "Knowing Where You're Going," Point Lookout for April 20, 2005; "Workplace Myths: Motivating People," Point Lookout for July 19, 2006; "Astonishing Successes," Point Lookout for January 31, 2007; and "Achieving Goals: Inspiring Passion and Action," Point Lookout for February 14, 2007.

Reader Comments
Jim Batterson
Chinese culture, especially under Mao, placed strong emphasis on a value celebrating those people who acted selflessly, heroically sacrificing themselves for the common good. The posters, movies, songs, and stories from this era are international cult collector's items and have a "camp" appeal outside of China. Many are laughable in the extreme examples they portray.
Within China selflessness is still emphasized in the schools, but within adult society there is a growing class of (relatively) very rich people who have corruptly leveraged their position within the party to their own benefit. These people are hated, envied, and admired, as you might expect.
A more deeply embedded characteristic of Chinese culture is the concept of Guanxi. Guanxi is like an informal accounting system of favors done for people. In 1994-1995, Xucheng lived at my house, all meals, soap, toothpaste, toilet paper, everything, for absolutely free while he was an exchange teacher at a local elementary school for the school year. (He was the tenth Chinese man who lived with us.) When I visited his school (he is headmaster) I taught for free, and the mere presence of a foreign teacher enhanced his prestige within the community.
But Xucheng is also the kind of fellow who is constantly doing favors for other people and is able to call upon them when he needs a favor. When we needed transportation and the school car was not available, he made a phone call and presto; we rode around all day in a police car! When I needed a doctor in Lipu, one showed up at my room, no charge. But most impressive of all, when I was 500 miles away in the city of Kunming and sick as a dog, within an hour after Xucheng found out about it an English-speaking doctor showed up at my hotel room with the medicine I needed. Believe me, if you were sick in a hotel in Saint Louis, I could not arrange that for you in a month of Sundays.
There was a discussion on Jerry Weinberg's SHAPE Forum recently about how to say no when people ask you for favors — asking you to do work for them for free. I think we could learn something from the Chinese about how to say yes. I believe in Karma.

101 Tips for Managing ChangeIs your organization embroiled in Change? Are you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt? Read 101 Tips for Managing Change to learn how to survive, how to plan and how to execute change efforts to inspire real, passionate support. Order Now!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenOZcVXXdpxScpbtISner@ChactRUVIJrJBXIhINAjoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Organizational Change:

Steppingstones in PompeiiChange How You Change
In the past two years, your life has probably changed. Do you commute over the same route you did two years ago? Same transportation? Same job? Same company? Same industry? Change is all around, and you're probably pretty skilled at it. You can become even more skilled if you change how you change.
Pick Up SticksPick-Up Sticks and the Change Game
When we change organizational culture, we often stumble over unexpected obstacles. Sometimes the tangle can be so frustrating that we want to start the company over again. Here are some tips for managing large-scale cultural change.
Winter dawn in BostonOn Beginnings
A new year has begun, and I'm contemplating beginnings. Beginnings can inspire, and sometimes lead to letdown when our hopes or expectations aren't met. How can we handle beginnings more powerfully?
A German Shepherd in a calmer momentWhen Fear Takes Hold
Leading an organization through a rough patch, we sometimes devise solutions that are elegant, but counterintuitive or difficult to explain. Even when they would almost certainly work, a simpler fix might be more effective.
A sea otter and pupPower, Authority, and Influence: A Systems View
Power, Authority, and Influence are often understood as personal attributes. To fully grasp how they function in organizations, we must adopt a systems view.

See also Organizational Change and Effective Communication at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

September 11, 2001 attacks in New York CityComing August 23: Look Where You Aren't Looking
Being blindsided by an adverse event could indicate the event's sudden, unexpected development. It can also indicate a failure to anticipate what could have been reasonably anticipated. How can we improve our ability to prepare for adverse events? Available here and by RSS on August 23.
"The Thinker," by Auguste RodinAnd on August 30: They Just Don't Understand
When we cannot resolve an issue in open debate, we sometimes try to explain the obstinacy of others. The explanations we favor can tell us more about ourselves than they do about others. Available here and by RSS on August 30.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrentNkhDyloNZJlZygGner@ChaclwsFNZHCwMvkMzNOoCanyon.com or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Race to the South Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers
On 14The Race to the Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough, but to organizational leaders, business analysts, project sponsors, and project managers, the story is fascinating. Lessons abound. Read more about this program. Here are some dates for this program:

Creating High Performance Virtual Teams
Many Creating High Performance Virtual Teamspeople experience virtual teams as awkward, slow, and sometimes frustrating. Even when most team members hail from the same nation or culture, and even when they all speak the same language, geographic dispersion or the presence of employees from multiple enterprises is often enough to exclude all possibility of high performance. The problem is that we lead, manage, and support virtual teams in ways that are too much like the way we lead, manage, and support co-located teams. In this program, Rick Brenner shows you how to change your approach to leading, managing, and supporting virtual teams to achieve high performance using Simons' Four Spans model of high performance. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
21st Century Business TravelAre your business trips long chains of stressful misadventures? Have you ever wondered if there's a better way to get from here to there relaxed and refreshed? First class travel is one alternative, but you can do almost as well (without the high costs) if you know the tricks of the masters of 21st-century e-enabled business travel…
More articles about person-to-person communication!
52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around.
Reader Comments About My Newsletter
A sampling:
  • Your stuff is brilliant! Thank you!
  • You and Scott Adams both secretly work here, right?
  • I really enjoy my weekly newsletters. I appreciate the quick read.
  • A sort of Dr. Phil for Management!
  • …extremely accurate, inspiring and applicable to day-to-day … invaluable.
  • More
101 Tips for Managing ConflictFed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you the target of a bully? Learn how to make peace with conflict.
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.
Comprehensive collection of all e-books and e-bookletsSave a bundle and even more important save time! Order the Combo Package and download all ebooks and tips books at once.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.
303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics!
Comprehensive collection of all e-books and e-bookletsSave a bundle and even more important save time! Order the Combo Package and download all ebooks and tips books at once.