Business Relationships

WIIFM (What’s In It For Me) is an acronym used by marketers and advertisers to structure their craft. WIIFM is the idea that people respond to marketing solely on the basis of what they will get from a particular product or service. It provides the foundation for virtually all marketing these days. Everyone teaches it. Everyone touts it. Everyone uses it. And everyone seems to believe it.

Of course they do, it is a truism. Every purchase by every person in every industry or market category can be analyzed and understood in terms of customer satisfaction. To build your marketing approach on WIIFM is to believe that customers/clients are self-motivated. WIIFM acknowledges the reality that people are self-centered and selfish. But it does more than acknowledge it, it encourages self-centered behavior by catering to it.

Everywhere we turn we are bombarded by marketing messages that drive us to evaluate everything on the basis of what it does or will do for me. Rick Brenner, a secular, world-class business consultant, ( has done the world a great service by thinking a bit more deeply about this matter. Are there any limits to using WIIFM?

He begins with a definition. “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.” Brenner argues that WIIFM has gone well beyond marketing, that it too often becomes the “dominant tactic of persuasion and motivation in organizations.” In other words, WIIFM has invaded organizational mentality as a preferred method of management as well as marketing. It’s everywhere.

“…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.”

How can self-interest be toxic to an organization? Brenner says that the philosophy of WIIFM “send(s) 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.” How can self-centeredness damage an organization? It can override cooperation, team spirit, and even lead to theft and conflict by suggesting that self-interest is always the best approach.

Brenner also argues that excessive WIIFM can undermine authority and respect by encouraging people to doubt the sincerity of others by causing people to believe that everyone—managers, leaders, coworkers—are concerned only for themselves. When WIIFM dominates, concern for others becomes suspect and produces cynicism, which leads to grumbling, griping and general negativity. Over time this kind of negativity destroys the work environment, which takes an eventual toll on the bottom line.

Brenner proposes a better idea. He calls it WIIFU—What’s In It For Us. “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.”

But Brenner’s fix is not different in character, it is only different in focus. He widens the concern to include one’s group—business, organization, department, etc. Granted it is an improvement, but only because the essential selfishness of WIIFM is diluted when it is applied with a group focus. WIIFU is less toxic than WIIFM. At least the WIIFU mentality pulls some people together, where the WIIFM mentality pulls people apart.

However, the energy of the motivation remains self-directed, though it is mitigated some by the group focus. The deeper problem is that WIIFU is not relational. Every communication, negotiation, agreement and/or sale has two sides, two concerns, two perspectives—self and other, speaker/listener, buyer/seller, etc. WIIFU is still one-sided. It is still self-directed. It ignores the concerns of the other. It just has a wider understanding of self.

The ideal business, communication, negotiation, agreement and/or sale takes the interests of both parties into consideration. The best business, communication, negotiation, agreement and/or sale seeks, finds and establishes a win-win position. Businesses grow when they find a win-win deal between them and their customers. Communication is most successful when both speaker and listener (buyer and seller) agree about the content of the communication. The ideal sale is built on a win-win relationship.

At the other end of the proverbial spectrum, Jim Batterson argues in a “Reader Comment” on Brenner’s website that the best form of human motivation is self-denial. He cites Mao’s Chinese communism as a prime example because of Mao’s “emphasis on a value celebrating those people who acted selflessly, heroically sacrificing themselves for the common good.” This actually sounds like Brenner’s WIIFU because neither firemen nor soldiers have any real relationship with those they protect and/or rescue. True, they act on selflessness, which is also the definition of heroism. (This does not mean that all heroes are communists.) The problem with an ethic of selfless heroism is that heroes are rare, exceptional. We need an ordinary ethic for ordinary people to make ordinary life better.

Mao’s failed communist experiment cannot provide any serious motivation for modern business or culture. The Chinese understand this, and are climbing aboard the capitalism train as fast as they can.

The success of the West suggests that people are motivated by their own concerns. Thus, WIIFU is still toxic to business and society, including corporate culture. A WIIFM or WIFFU based culture will eventually produce selfish, grumbling, complaining people who are concerned only about themselves (or their own group—company, department, etc.) and who essentially distrust and discount others. The self-directed philosophical mentality fails to provide win-win scenarios and will eventually implode or collapse because of its failure to take others into consideration.

There is a better answer, and that answer will be fundamentally or philosophically relational—if only because business, society and culture are essentially relational. The concern for relationship bridges the gap between selfishness and selflessness by seeking a win-win agreement or relationship. The concern for relationship is self-motivating without being self-centered. It seeks to balance what’s best for itself with what’s best for others.

Selfishness is toxic. Selflessness is a fantasy fit only for heroes. But a genuine concern for relationship seeks a win-win agreement that will satisfy both self and other, buyer and seller. And a concern for relationship or agreement is at the very heart of business, society and culture. Business floats on a sea of relationships. Genuine success is relationship driven. Sales and negotiations are fundamentally relational.

What is more, a win-win relationship creates buzz. It generates positive feelings that overflow into conversations and communications that do not need to be generated or managed by marketing departments. The win-win relationship between a business and its customers creates a marketing engine that runs on its own fuel.

Finally, then, there is another name for the kind of motivation that is concerned about both self and other, that tirelessly works to develop win-win relationships, and that is accessible to businesses, organizations, societies and cultures.

But it is not a single thing. Rather, it is a complex of things that work together to create institutional and/or organizational integration in such a way that the various elements of an organization accomplish agreed upon goals, ends and purposes and produces win-win relationships. This kind of relational concern not only works within an organization to create win-win relationships among employees, but extends outward to customers, and even to society at large. When people are relationship-driven they work to make everyone they come in contact with a winner. Relationship-driven people do not ignore their own interests, nor the interests of others. They are neither selfless nor selfish.

We could call this concern for relationships covenantalism in the sense that all parties involved are working toward common agreements or promises that will result in a win-win relationship. Each party to the relationship is working toward the discovery and fulfillment of agreed upon promises. To avoid the acidic and litigious language and culture of law we choose not to use the legal term contract, but use the less formal term covenant to describe the essential nature of such relationships.

The seller promises product reliability and/or customer satisfaction, and the buyer promises payment fidelity and/or business loyalty. What holds buyer and seller together is the covenant, agreement or promise that is the basis or foundation of the deal. Covenantalism is a good word, but most people are not familiar with it.

Let me suggest that the closest related word is Christianity. Christianity is covenantal and relational. It is promise driven and is concerned with inclusiveness and fairness. But can Christianity provide a basis for successful business relationships? Can it provide motivation for sales and customer satisfaction? Is Christianity motivational? Is it relational?

In as much as business, sales and customer satisfaction are related to honesty, integrity, fairness and genuine concern for others, Christianity indeed can produce positive business relationships that actually increase the bottom line of any business. In fact, historically Christianity has provided the foundation or engine of modern Western economic development that has been recognized by believers and unbelievers alike.

Max Weber, the father of Sociology wrote the classic study, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904). The thesis of the book is that Protestant Christianity provided the moral values for the development of capitalism and the success of American economics (now in decline because of the loss of broad-based Christian morality). Declines in business productivity over the past 30-50 years are the result of the loss of traditional or Christian morality during the same period.

There are two things that business owners can do to help recover business productivity: 1) understand, practice and teach the values and principles of the Protestant Work Ethic through everything that their business does (finance, human resources, operations, and marketing), and 2) stop doing what undermines these values and principles (i.e, the utilization of WIIFU and WIIFM principles).

If you would like to discuss how this can be done in your particular circumstance, contact PARoss Services for more information.

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