In Times Of Change, “What’s In It For Me?” Is The Question You Need To Answer

We’re all self-centered. So as a leader, you need to make sure your people know they’re being treated right during a transition.

In Times Of Change, “What’s In It For Me?” Is The Question You Need To Answer

In trying to execute a change initiative, many leaders make a common mistake: they try to lead by announcement, by sloganeering, or–worse yet–by executive fiat. To them, their change idea is completely logical. Trouble is, to win the support of others they must appeal to the psychological.


When confronted with change, most people tune in to their favorite internal radio station: WIIFM–What’s In It For Me? That’s not to suggest that most people are selfish. It’s simply a fact that personal context is usually the first filter we use to evaluate our environment. It’s especially true when we’re asked to participate in some sort of change.

Change is movement away from the present. And change is movement toward a future that promises not just something different but, hopefully, something better.

What we call the present was never really firm. It was in a constant state of tension between the need to remain stable and the need to respond to the inevitable adjustments of time and circumstance.

Change is not what troubles most people. What gives them the greatest heartburn is the transition from the present to the future. Change is situational: the new team roles, the new manager, the new procedure, the new way of operating. Transition is the psychological rite of passage during which people come to terms with the new situation (the change).

Your challenge is to validate the journey.


Every change begins with an ending. People look at the present and try to compare it to the future by asking countless questions: What am I losing? Where are we headed? What will the new place look like? How will it be different from what I have now? What about the work flow? Who will be my teammates? What will be the expectations for my contribution? What performance metrics will be used?

In other words, what’s in it for me?

When you ask people to go from where they are to someplace else, your task is to create a vision they can understand and will be willing to embrace. Defining the future with absolute, irrevocable certainty is rarely possible. But you should try to paint a picture of it with as much clarity as practical.

Does the change involve creating a new team? Who will be the team leader? Who will be the other team members? What will be the team’s tasks and authority?

Does the change involve a new product or service? How will it differ from previous offerings? How will it be positioned with customers? What support will the marketing and distribution people provide?


Does the change involve something amorphous like “better communication”? If so, clarity is especially important. One person may define “better communication” in terms of open and honest dialogue and breaking down inter-departmental silos, while another may think only in terms of getting a new carrier for his cell phone service.

In defining the future, and the transition(s) required to get there, six steps are especially critical:

Take Off The Blinders

A common ingredient in failed change efforts is that the people advocating the change were blind to any viewpoint other than their own. Be thorough with your due diligence. Ensure that you gather comprehensive data on the change you want to promote. Be careful not to inadvertently (or deliberately) filter out information that contradicts your position. Acknowledging and respecting contrary views will strengthen your credibility. Pretending that contrary views don’t exist will make you come across as an ill-informed dunce, or worse.

Tend To The CAST Of Characters

Many people in many roles will be affected by and instrumental in the change you’re promoting. It’s important to tend to their needs throughout the change journey. Here’s your CAST of Characters –

  • Champions. These are people who want the change and work to gain commitment and resources for it.
  • Agents. They implement the change.
  • Sponsors. They authorize, legitimize and demonstrate ownership for the change. Sponsors come in at least two varieties. They possess sufficient organizational power and/or influence to either initiate commitment of resources (Authorizing Sponsor) or they promote the change at the “local” level (Reinforcing Sponsor).
  • Targets. They are called on to alter their behavior, emotions, and practices. (During the change process, everyone is a Target at one time or another.)

People in different roles have different needs. Staying aware of those roles will help you with your messaging, coalition building, and every other aspect of your change work.


Remember Context.

People in the boardroom live in a different world from the folks on the shop floor. That’s not to suggest that one group is more or less intelligent or valuable than another. It’s merely to say that frame of reference must always be considered. Senior managers are likely focused on big picture issues like market share and competitive advantage. Mid-level managers and supervisors may focus on the meaning of the change for their budgets and span of control. Line workers will want to know how the change will affect their schedules, their work processes, and the availability of tools and other resources. Some concerns about issues like job opportunity and pay are of course universal. Just remember to package your message in audience-appropriate language, analogies, and examples that allow people to relate.

Use SMART Goals

To the extent possible, use the SMART goals approach outlined in a previous chapter. Make sure the Future you define is Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-Bound. Not only will this approach help you “position” the desired change, it will help clarify your thinking about it in the first place.

Keep It Simple

No matter how smart the people you’re trying to influence may be, take special care not to smother them with too much data. Less really can be more, especially when it’s carefully targeted. No amount of economic doubletalk could complete with the persuasive simplicity of plain language.

Answer the What, Why, And What If Questions

Even the simplest change effort is likely to be met with at least some resistance. As you validate the tourney, be sure to have a compelling answer for each of the three most common kinds of questions:

  • What? What exactly is the change you’re advocating? What will it entail? What will it require people to give up? What will be involved in moving from the Present to the Future? What kind of inconvenience or discomfort can people expect to experience?
  • Why? Why is this change proposed? Why is it necessary for the organization’s stability, growth, or survival? Why now? Why not some other change instead?
  • What If? What if the organization or the team simply sticks with the status quo? What if the proposed change is postponed? What if the change were incremental instead of a clean break with the past? What if we risk death-by-PowerPoint and just study the issue for the next ten years?

When planning a trip, it’s important to make it appealing to the people you’re inviting to get on the bus. Similarly, as you validate the journey of your change effort, it’s critical that you carefully tend to all the What’s In It For Me details for the people affected.


Rodger Dean Duncan is widely known for his expertise in leadership development and the strategic management of change. Since he founded Duncan Worldwide in 1972, his clients have included senior executives at major companies in several industries and cabinet officers in two White House administrations. His new book is Change-Friendly Leadership: How to Transform Good Intentions into Great Performance. Follow him on Twitter.

[Image: Flickr user Brian Wolfe]