Is this common employee question killing performance in your organization?

If there was one question I’d like to hurl into deep space, “What’s in it for me?” would be it. The main reason is that the “What’s in it for me?” question breaks down our hope that we might accomplish something special together, and all be better for it.

When individuals prioritize their own needs and gains at the expense of others, our sense of relatedness decreases—and both intra-team competition and interpersonal suspicion increase.

This amounts to a special form of self-protective behavior—hoarding and hiding information.  It’s akin to sealing off a wing of the company library and saying that the information will not be shared with others to help solve the issues and challenges of the day. This behavior hinders the organization’s ability to learn quickly, which reduces its capacity to compete and serve its clients.

It’s especially troublesome when a manager asks the question.

Recent Blanchard research published in the Journal of Modern Economy and Management revealed that people who perceive their managers as primarily self-oriented experience more negative emotion and are less likely to speak positively about the organization to industry colleagues, friends, and family.  They also have higher turnover intentions.

Conversely, people who see their managers as highly interested in the needs and well-being of employees at least as much or more than their own personal needs are statistically much more likely to:

  • perform at high levels;
  • use more discretionary effort;
  • positively endorse the company to industry colleagues, friends, and family;
  • be highly ethical in their jobs;
  • have the intention of staying with the company longer.

In other words, a manager who is others-oriented fosters the kind of behavior and intentions that help organizations thrive.

So, what can you do to build more employee goodwill—and help fling “What’s in it for me?” into deep space?

  • Stop using the phrase yourself.
  • When you hear others using the phrase, share the business and personal benefits of being more others-oriented than self-oriented.
  • Cite the latest research as often as you can—because people will want to know you have strong evidence for your new point of view.

Working together effectively is a key competency in today’s work environment.  Here’s hoping that you and all your colleagues will together enjoy much shared happiness and success.

About the author:

The Motivation Guy  (also known as Dr. David Facer)  is one of the principal authors—together  with Susan Fowler and Drea Zigarmi—of The Ken Blanchard Companies’ new Optimal Motivation process and workshop.  Their posts appear on the first and third Monday of each month.

13 thoughts on “Is this common employee question killing performance in your organization?

  1. I have to disagree. The ability to ask “what’s in it for me?” is the hallmark of a sentient being capable of recognising that they need to value themselves. It’s not the question that’s wrong, it’s the fact that so many employers can’t give them a good answer. Why, indeed, would people want to work themselves into an early grave to make others rich? OK, this is an extreme example, but I hope the point is made …

  2. Further to my comment above, I hope it’s apparent that Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs applies here:until employees are satisfied with their own personal welfare at work, it is somewhat naive to expect them to focus on any higher goal such as teamwork or fulfilling the company’s lofty behavioural ideals. The alternative is to continuously mine employee goodwill, but this is never a bottomless resource, and the deeper you dig, the more likely the sides of the pit are to cave in.

  3. Pingback: Is this common employee question killing performance in your organization? |

  4. Imo, when this question is asked with a negative tone, it is a symptom indicating larger issues. Possibly a flimsy hiring practice, disengaged leadership, poor mentorship skills in leaders or incongruous workplace rules/code of conduct. It may not be a constructive attitude but an authentic and enlightened leader is able to transform it into a constructive solution with curiosity and a willingness to meet the challenge of change. We have a choice to throw negatives away and pretend they don’t exist or, transform and be transformed by them. No small feat though. Precisely what makes life hard.

  5. I agree with Hugh. “What’s in it for me,” is simply a marketing questions. Why should I spend my time? Why should I use my resources? What should I say to my boss when I take this particular recommendation back? However, unfortunately, some use it for greedy moments that they can never shack, and they never care about anyone but themselves, but no matter which group you encounter, you still should be ready with the transparent reasons of what really is in it for them because it you cannot answer this question then you really are not ready to market the prouduct, no matter what it is! You should always be ready to tell your customers, partners, colleagues, what’s in it for them!

  6. With roots in the Fortune 1000, I now work in HIgher Education. Here is the scary part from my view. Many students are approaching the education process as a transcational exercise.To Hugh’s point this is “customer needs identification” but in young para-professionals it may signal, at best…a lack of maturity, or, at worst..a lack of authentic motivation—an understanding that really great things tend to happen when your get over yourself. Granted any decently designed adult learning program must start with some type of affect or relevance exercise to engage the learner but how many of us are brave enough to tell our learning communities that it’s really not about “you”.The true question is “what’s in it for us”? Servant leaders unite!

  7. I think the greater point is employee engagement – when everyone is moving in the same direction, the WIIFM becomes very clear. I believe that, and in my experience, when the company is doing well it is because people are performing. They perform because they “get it” and are committed to the goals.

    I’ve seen a few instances where the WIIFM comes before the effort, and those are typically the employees who are unwilling to truly be a member of the team. While there are cases where it’s healthy to ask this question, if you continue to ask it, then you have probably not found a way to share the mission, vision, and values of the organization.

  8. I have not read the original research, but it looks to me like you may have the made the wrong causative attribution. Perhaps the cause of lower productivity, engagement and the like isn’t the manager’s motivations but the tendencies of the people viewing them. People with a negative outlook see things negatively whether or not they are.

  9. From my perspective the WIIFM of the listener is the source motivation so if I haevn’t tapped into it I have failed in my leadership

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