I've attended presentations on the topic and the matter is always a major consideration in the workplace. When the topic is communication, two thoughts keep coming to mind. The first is Steven Covey's Habit #5: “Seek First to Understand Then to be Understood” (“Seek First…”). The second is “What's In It For Me?” (WIIFM?).
I don't know who coined the WIIFM? saying and its philosophy, however, I do know I have heard numerous business consultants instruct about it for several years. In summary, their instruction has been: when you deal with people don't lose track of the fact those people will always be thinking – “What's In It For Me?” I first heard the WIIFM? saying and its philosophy as a piece of Sales Instruction…ie, it was presented as part of a sales training course. The sales-training messages were: (1) when dealing with potential or existing customers the Salesperson must understand and never forget those people are always thinking "WIIFM?" and (2) in order to increase sales success the Salesperson must adjust his/her behaviour in order to address the customers WIIFM?.
At the surface, that logic could be accepted.
- The customer needs a reason to purchase.
- By asking himself/herself WIIFM?, the customer justifies a decision, ‘to buy or not to buy’.
- If the Salesperson is skilled at adjusting his/her behaviour in a pre-planned way then that could increase the likelihood of sales success.
On the other hand, those same sales consultants insisted emotions play a large role when buyers buy.
So, perhaps there were two psychological conclusions:
- buyers employ logical thought (WIIFM?) as they make purchasing decisions and
- buyers' emotions often (or is it always?) influence their purchasing decisions.
I'm suspecting the combination of these two psychological conclusions spawned the sales doctrine that can be summed up as ‘Find the Buyer's Pain and Make That Pain Go Away’.
Put another way, Salespeople were instructed to become diagnosticians, something like Doctors...Salespeople were told to diagnose the customer’s pain and prescribe the remedy. And, of course, that would lead to making the sale. We were instructed, however, the Salesperson's role differed from that of the Doctor because the Doctor used logic and precedent to do the diagnosis of an already-existing pain while the Salesperson had to figure out how to cause the customer to feel the pain.
I mean – the sales training taught us:
- the Salesperson had to guide communication in a manner that would induce the customer to truly experience emotional pain,
- the customer would first gain awareness of the nature of that pain and then come to realize the remedy for that pain,
- that remedy, of course, would be the service or product of the Salesperson, and
- with one having induced the pain and the other having felt it and enjoyed its remedy, and with one having done the sale and the other having done the purchase, the seller and the buyer would have concluded a successful business-communication experience.
That’s the sort of sales training that I heard when I first heard the WIIFM? philosophy.
Later, the use of WIIFM? instruction became more widespread. We were told it didn't just apply to customers, it applied to everyone in our workplace...indeed, some instructed us that it applied to all interpersonal relationships. Of specific concern, it applied to communication in the office and more-specifically it applied when bosses communicated with employees. Most recently, I've heard it applied in an even-more-specific way...we must be extra careful to make sure we don't lose track of WIIFM? when we deal with ‘Gen Y’ or are they ‘Millennial’ employees. (Whatever the right terminology is, I am referring to our youngest employees.)
Covey’s Seek First to Understand Then to be Understood. This is certainly an insightful instruction. It is tremendous in theory but sometimes it can be tough to do in practice. For most of us the practice is tough because we have lots of great ideas we want to share with others. And, on top of that, sometimes we forget the value of listening. Listening is one of those good habits so it is easy to break. Regardless, for most communication it makes sense to try to understand the other person before you expect them to try to understand you.
If everyone tried to follow this Steven Covey Habit #5 then business communication would improve. That is - in general, business communication would improve. There would be situations where communication would not improve. In fact, in some situations the value of the communication could be neutered. At the risk of being ridiculous…consider the situation where the employee is running through the office screaming "FIRE!!!". Coworkers and even the boss might find the best course is to simply act by making a prompt exit from the building. One could argue that isn't just a ridiculous example, it doesn't contravene "Seek First..." because everyone would immediately understand what "FIRE!!!" means so no seeking of understanding would be required. On the other hand, the boss might be really busy at the time and he/she may be tempted to stand some ground and make sure the employee who is yelling “FIRE!!!” has a good reason for such an interruption. Regardless, each of us can come up with fair-and-reasonable examples of business situations where "Seek First..." is not the best way.
Or, maybe that's not true? While I've heard many business consultants instruct about "Seek First...", about WIIFM?, and about both I've never heard one of them instruct if or when these ‘rules’ can be or should be broken.
Perhaps it goes without saying?
Perhaps the instructors assume we know "Seek First..." and WIIFM? are guides and they expect people will use common sense to judge when these guides can be or should be set aside? But, I've never heard any instructor make that sort of comment. In fact, every time I've heard it taught, WIIFM? has been presented as if it is a hard-and-fast fact of life. The instruction seems to be: when we deal with people we must always recognize the other person is using What's In It For Me? as the measuring stick that dictates his/her interest in and reaction to what we are saying.
The WIIFM? philosophy provokes thought and questions.
- If WIIFM? prevails then how does an organization build teamwork?
- If WIIFM? prevails then how should bosses communicate with the people who report to them?
- If WIIFM? prevails then to what extent must the boss temper his/her personal WIIFM? needs in order to communicate successfully amidst the array of WIIFM? needs of his/her subordinates?
“Seek First to Understand Then to be Understood” and “What's In It For Me?” are interesting pieces of advice.
It seems to me "Seek First..." is a Habit that serves well in many communication situations. However, for business communication it must have some limitations.
It seems to me the advice on "What's In It For Me?" is at least a bit out of control. One should not ignore the fact other people have needs. However, that's but one facet. Needs are relative. That's another facet and, in business, that facet will conflict with the philosophy and instructions of WIIFM?.
Twenty-five years ago, a boss taught me a variation of the “Golden Rule”...it was – “He Who Carries The Gold Makes The Rules”. Not having heard any advice on WIIFM?, I accepted that Golden Rule and went about trying to be the best subordinate I could be. Not having heard any advice on "Seek First...", I went about trying to understand my boss' requests...again, so I could be the best subordinate I could be.
Perhaps it goes without saying, but I will say it anyhow...for most of us, the “Rules” we are taught will tend to influence our behaviour.
The WIIFM? approach to communication is a piece of advice that is grounded on a reasonable starting point. Other peoples’ needs are important. That grounding would be a much more useful starting point if it yielded philosophy that could be embraced as a two-way street. If both parties accepted they must adjust their communication to accommodate the other person's WIIFM? then the practice of the philosophy of WIIFM? might be able to generate much more communication value. However, it seems deeper exploration will show us just how oxymoronic the WIIFM? philosophy is.
The way I am looking at it, the WIIFM? philosophy either:
- works as a one-way street where one person must drive the car in the direction dictated by the other person or
- fails to work as a two-way street because both drivers will always struggle to determine which direction they should point their car.
The One-Way WIIFM? Street:
The way I've heard it taught, the WIIFM? philosophy works as a one-way street. The Salesperson is taught to adjust his/her behaviour to address the WIIFM? needs of the customer. And, the boss is taught to adjust his/her behaviour to address the WIIFM? needs of the subordinate. While nobody has clarified it, the one-way street starts with the Salesperson going through a personal what-are-my-needs exercise...”What's in it for me if I deal with this customer?” Then, the Salesperson must apply the WIIFM? philosophy during communication with the customer. Similarly, the boss' one-way street starts with his/her personal needs then moves to the subordinate's WIIFM?. Perhaps bosses and Salespeople will achieve greater success by traveling down these One-Way WIIFM? Streets?
The Two-Way WIIFM? Street:
I have never heard an instructor or a consultant provide WIIFM? advice to both Salespeople and buyers or to both bosses and subordinates. I would be very interested to know if any buyers have received WIIFM? indoctrination…ie, have any buyers been told to make sure they consider ‘what's in it for the Salesperson?’ and ‘how can I adjust my behaviour to address the needs of the Salesperson?’ Also, I'd be interested to know if any consultants advise both subordinates and bosses, together, on how to employ the WIIFM? philosophy for communication. Under that joint education, subordinates would be taught to back their communication with thinking like ‘what's in it for my boss?’ and ‘how can I adjust my behaviour to address the needs of my boss?’
While I have serious doubts, for the moment let's assume the Two-Way WIIFM? Street can happen. Let’s assume both customers and Salespeople can learn how to employ the WIIFM? philosophy…attending to one another's needs. And, let’s assume subordinates and bosses can do the same thing. Every person seeks to understand the other and to adjust behaviour accordingly to ensure the needs of the other are addressed. At the surface, maybe that sounds reasonable? Maybe that sounds like a great way to go about communication?
I don't think we need to spend too much time thinking about how good (or bad) this would be in practice. It is flawed at theory, well before practice. In fact, it seems the flaws of the Two-Way WIIFM? Street illustrate what could be fatal flaws in the construct of the WIIFM? philosophy.
Here are some steps in logic:
- If WIIFM? generates better communication when one party in the communication employs it then surely even better communication will happen if it is embraced by both parties in the communication.
- But, as stated in its name the foundation of the WIIFM? philosophy is - "What's in it for me?".
- With that in mind we must conclude each of us will always start by thinking - "What's in it for me?". We will not start by thinking – “What’s in it for the other person?”. We will start by thinking – “What’s in it for me?” and with that established we will move to “What do I need to do to satisfy the WIIFM? needs of the other person?”
- Having gone through those two thinking steps we will then adjust our behaviour to accommodate the needs of the other…I would alter my behaviour to satisfy what I believe is your need while, at the same time, you would alter your behaviour to satisfy what you believe is my need.
- Each of us would be playing a communication charade on the other while each of us would in fact only be truly motivated to satisfy our own needs.
- Our tandem, self-imposed behaviour changes would simply be means to personal ends.
Each of us must be solely motivated to satisfy our own needs or nobody would have come up with this WIIFM? thinking in the first place.
If that isn't true then it is logical to conclude the creators of the WIIFM? philosophy feel it only applies to one person in the communication. This appears to be the fact. If a Salesperson is communicating then the WIIFM? philosophy only applies to the customer. If a boss is communicating then the WIIFM? philosophy only applies to the subordinate.
WIIFM? is a One-Way Street communication philosophy. That street has a set direction. When the philosophy is applied it flows from the person who wants to cause change to the person who must do something in order to effect that change.
Each of us in business must be motivated by our own needs. And, our business behaviour, whether natural/involuntary or constructed/thought-driven, is done to satisfy our own needs. If the teachers of WIIFM? philosophy don't agree with this then it seems to me their logic is flawed.
Or worse, they are promoting a curious form of caste-thinking, which works something like this:
- Salespeople are purer than customers. [Or, if it is preferred – Salespeople want to cause change while customer-buyers do not.]
- Since they are purer, the behaviour of Salespeople is not driven by personal needs. Rather, Salespeople are solely motivated by the WIIFM? needs of their customers.
- Salespeople are able to construct communication in a manner that enables them to determine customers’ needs…I mean deep-rooted emotional needs.
- In order to satisfy those customers’ WIIFM? needs, the Salespeople perform behaviour specially constructed to guide the communication process in a manner that ends up satisfying the needs of their customers.
Similarly, bosses are purer than subordinates. Subordinates are stuck at WIIFM? while their bosses are solely trying to help them get all that subordinate WIIFM? need satisfied.
No reasonable person will accept a philosophy that is based on caste-thinking as described above. So, it appears the foundation of the philosophy of WIIFM? is flawed. The starting point is accurate: people are motivated to satisfy their own needs and that motivation brings ‘what's in it for me?’ into every business communication. But, actually, to be accurate, it brings at least two separate pieces of ‘what's in it for me?’ thinking into each business communication...that is, one piece for each person involved in the communication.
Recognizing caste-thinking must not be behind the WIIFM? philosophy, it is highly unlikely the One-Way Street teachings will yield communication success. That is true because in the absence of caste-grounding the parties to a conversation will always be at odds. One party in the communication will be aware of his/her own needs and will adjust his/her behaviour to address his/her perception of the needs of the other person while that other person will be working to serve only his/her personal interests. Since no caste differences exist each party will be starting from the same place: that is – “My needs are most important to me”. Each party will have a more-or-less similar ability to perceive the needs of the other. That is, each person will have equal opportunity to employ the WIIFM? philosophy. However, only one will be doing it. At least, one person will be thinking only one person is doing it…that person being the one who received WIIFM? communication training. That person, apparently, will be engaging in the communication believing the WIIFM? training is providing him/her a leg up. Or, that person will be thinking – “My self-adjusted behaviour changes will enable me to accomplish my goals…and, yes, I believe the other party in the communication will not be adjusting his/her behaviour as I am doing”.
Even if it isn’t fatally flawed, I don’t think this What’s In It For Me? philosophy has much value.
Steven Covey provided better advice when he stated "Habit #5: Seek First To Understand Then To Be Understood".
Certainly, there will be times in business where this Habit #5 cannot be employed. In certain situations, bosses will have to provide instruction without seeking input or consensus from subordinates. We in business ought to be able to have some faith in bosses' good judgment. In other situations, it will be impractical or unacceptable to seek understanding of others. Some needs are personal and personal territory should be respected. And, time will be a factor.
The 5th Covey Habit is good advice.
Seek First To Understand Then To Be Understood is good advice because it:
- recognizes every person has needs, so it enables us to work on a two-way street.
- works on a one-way street. Even if one person in the communication refuses to follow or fail at performance of the 5th Habit, the communication will still have some chance of succeeding.
- is balanced and that is a fair way to handle communication. It is fair to place a similar burden on each person in the communication.
- works for subordinates as well as it works for bosses. There is no caste-thinking, no hierarchical lines separating who must give from who must receive.
- works for customers as well as it works for salespeople. There is no caste-thinking, no lines separating who must give from who must receive.
- promotes respect for others, without ignoring respect for self.
- promotes listening. People like receiving that from others.
- builds Value into communication and that in turn builds Value into business.