Motivation: WIIFM and WASA

By David Creelman

We all know the acronym WIIFM: What’s In It For Me? It’s a good reminder that when implementing a program, the fact that it is good for the organization will not do much to encourage adoption. You have to be able to answer the employees’ question of WIIFM?

HR professionals learn related ideas about incentives. The idea in its extreme form is that people only do what they are rewarded for. This is just a way of framing the economists’ view of human behaviour as being fundamentally selfish and all about profit-seeking.

Although WIIFM is an important theory of human behaviour and often a helpful guide for HR, it does not explain the behaviour of the most efficient groups of humans. Anthropologists know that most societies have operated mainly through communal cooperation and that this is an extremely productive way for a group to operate.

Communal behaviour is based on a web of trust, goodwill, obligations, implied debt (“I owe you for that”), and cooperation. I do not need to write out precise definitions for those terms because you, as a human, understand them in your bones. You help a neighbour, they help you. Sometimes there is a rough equivalence of exchange; you loan them a hammer, they loan you a saw. However, often communal behaviour follows the principle of ‘each according to his abilities’. The young man shovels snow off the old lady’s driveway, the old lady offers the young man a cup of tea. The work involved in brewing the tea in no way matches the effort in shovelling the driveway but in this sort of social accounting it is the thought that counts—given the specific social situation. In a real way everybody has an obligation to everyone else and they behave accordingly.

Communal behaviour occurs because we are social animals, a phrase of such importance to HR that we should be using the acronym WASA as often as we use WIIFM. In organizations we frequently see WASA in action, such as when older workers mentor younger ones knowing that they can never be repaid. It is not about WIIFM, it is not an economic exchange, it is humans behaving as social animals. Americans have a phrase for this kind of altruistic behaviour: “paying it forward”. The phrase encapsulates the idea that as others have given selflessly to us, we will repay this generosity through similarly giving selflessly to others.

Some people, unwilling to let go of a simplistic model that explains everything, will try to claim that the mentor is exchanging effort for the good feeling they get. However, if any sort of outcome can be defined as a benefit then the WIIFM idea loses explanatory power. Thinking either WIIFM or WASA explains everything shows poor intellectual sophistication; we need to understand both mechanisms.

Implications

This all seems obvious; so why bother writing about it? The reason is that we are continually presented with intellectual frameworks that lead us towards thinking of humans as profit seeking individuals rather than social animals. Setting up an incentive plan to reward certain behaviours makes sense if humans are purely individualistic, but could be harmful if the rewards interfere with social behaviour. We need to pair, in our own minds, both models of human behaviour so that when we think of one (such as WIIFM) we immediately balance that with the other (WASA).

Since communal behaviour is highly productive we need to know how to create that feeling of community. One way is to encourage face-to-face social activities, whether it is celebrating a worker’s birthday, designing the office so people bump into each other in common areas, or having a family day. Economists would tend to see these things as ‘nice to have’ at best, if not actually a waste. HR may know in their gut these are valuable things, but have trouble articulating why. The reason is that it creates a highly efficient community of cooperation. We should think of face-to-face encounters as a way of pouring social currency into the system. Keep pouring in social currency and high productivity ensues. Westerners typically find the Japanese practice of company uniforms and group exercises somewhat ridiculous; the Japanese are wise enough to understand you need to build social ties for productive operations.

Another implication is that when work units get too big, say more than 150 people, you begin to lose the power of communal behaviour. This fact is frequently noticed and just as frequently ignored—all the more reason to ingrain the model of communal behaviour just as deeply in our thinking as we have ingrained the model of selfish, incentive-driven behaviour.

It is worth noting that unions drive management crazy not so much through wage demands or strikes, but through restrictive work rules that prevent workers from the on-going give and take where everyone pitches in to get the job done. Too often unions are designed as if the organization was a group of separated individuals each doing their own thing which ruins the efficiency of a communal action.

An Assignment

Here’s a takeaway assignment: can we use the principle of communal behaviour to enhance cooperation among managers and break down the silos? At senior levels communal behaviour can be harder because of big, individual incentives, competition for rare promotions, and the sheer scale of dealing with the whole organization. Still, managers are the group where real give and take cooperation would have the most impact on organizational success. We can’t eliminate WIIFM, but perhaps we can draw out a little more WASA behaviour.

It is only fair to point out that I am asking you to embrace two mutually contradictory ideas. WIFFM tells us that people act selfishly. WASA tells us people act cooperatively. Reality is a mix of both and depends on context. There are no models of human behaviour which are both simple and accurate. We need to embrace the contradictions.

David Creelman is CEO of Creelman Research, providing writing, research and speaking on human-capital management. He works with a variety of academics, think tanks, consultancies and HR vendors in Canada, the U.S., Japan, Europe and China. Mr. Creelman can be reached at dcreelman@creelmanresearch.com.

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  1. Great article! You describe WASA in words but what does the acronym WASA stand for. I can guess the letter W 🙂

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