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How to dodge the ‘what’s in it for me’ trap

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How to dodge the ‘what’s in it for me’ trap

‘What’s in it for me?’ – a common phrase we use in internal communication, especially when it comes to change.

But sadly there isn’t always a pot of gold at the end of the comms rainbow and we can sometimes find ourselves desperately scrabbling for the positive spin to persuade employees of the benefits of major change…

This is where the often misplaced need to answer the ‘what’s in it for me?’ (WIIFM) question can end up feeling more like an alarming ambush than an enticing prize.


Persuasion or propaganda?

The word persuasion has featured highly in recent conversations around the subject of major change, and it doesn’t always sit well. 

The dictionary definition of persuasion is, ‘to induce to believe by appealing to reason or understanding; to convince’ and in some instances, this could suggest an air of PR propaganda. The idea of using persuasive communication to encourage any sort of behaviour change may begin to wander off into the cloudy realms of ethical standards… 


Moved by the media

I decided to have a quick squiz through some recent headlines that included the word persuade to explore how they made me feel. 

Retailers will have to work harder this year to persuade people to shop

HMRC ‘regularly has to persuade people not to retire’

Norfolk Constabulary call on public to prevent, persuade and report drink drivers

What would persuade you to pay £300 for Harry Styles tickets? Your teens want to know…

My immediate emotional response to these headlines was strongly guided by how the subject matter impacted me personally. What are the implications for me? How much will it cost me? What do I need to know? How will my teen try to manipulate me??

The way employees respond to change communication is likely to be no different because they will naturally place messages into the context of what they mean to them. 


Critical enablers for successful change

In the book, ‘Managing and Leading People Through Organisational Change: The Theory and Practice of Sustaining Change Through People’, Julie Hodges highlights a number of critical enablers required for successful change. Rather than slipping down the WIIFM rabbit hole and attempting to convince and persuade, here are some alternative thoughts to consider for three of these enablers. 



Leaders must embody the vision for change, defining a shared direction and guiding employees towards a shared purpose that carries meaning for the organisation and the people who contribute to it. Create a narrative for the change that focuses on the real outcomes for the audience, and a sense of a purpose that conveys clarity, connection, goals, stories and passion.



Fostering collaboration empowers individuals so they can participate effectively in change. According to Hodges, “when people engage in a shared task, and know what they and others are responsible for, then the whole task runs more smoothly and builds a stronger degree of trust.”  So building collaboration is vital, even when people are working virtually and across geographical boundaries. Provide a crucial foundation for change by creating a network of positive, committed people. 



Hodges states that, “although leaders envision and drive change, success is largely contingent on the commitment and engagement from people involved in the process.” Build commitment by creating an environment in which the people most affected by change have a role in shaping it.


More to explore

Along with the above, other change enablers suggested by Hodges include the importance of having a positive approach and attitude, sense building, sponsorship, innovation and energy. As comms pros, we can build on these critical change enablers to balance the communication needs, feelings and emotions of employees with the strategic objectives required of the change.  


In summary

People are more likely to engage when they understand the change story rather than have it sold to them. Not every communication can or should imply a positive benefit. By communicating a rogue advantage, or generating a feeling that doesn’t fit, people will see straight through your ploy and your efforts will likely fail.  

To end with the wise words of author and co-founder of PR Academy, Ann Pilkington,

“When it comes to change, we are not here to tell and sell. We can avoid this approach by switching from ‘what’s in it for me?’ to ‘what does it mean to me?” 

And you shouldn’t need any more persuasion than that…!


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