I was on my way back to my office after a very challenging board meeting during which negotiations between the company I serve and a union had been resolved through the usual “What’s in it for me?” process.

Later that night I caught up on the day’s news, which was about professional athletes looking out for themselves instead of their team, political leaders on both sides of the aisle refusing to budge from their party’s side of the aisle in “fiscal cliff” negotiations, and global despots pushing for more military power in their own country while threatening world peace. Everyone around the world was asking “What’s in it for me?”

The last straw was when my dog refused to budge from my favorite spot on the family room sofa. I had to “reward” him with a small treat to get him to move across the room—or would that be considered a bribe? Then I had to hurry to the sofa before he got back to “his” spot.

These experiences led me to conclude that today’s number-one bad habit is WIIFM thinking.

Tuning in to WIIFM

Apparently it’s a generational thing, with some authors now labeling all those coming after the baby boomers as part of a “generation me” category. It makes sense—people in this age group have more often than not been taught to “be yourself,” “believe in yourself,” and that “you must love yourself before you can love someone else.”

Although these concepts are meant to encourage healthy self-esteem and independence, there are unintended consequences, including the growing belief that individual needs come before duty to others. Today’s young people are taught to have high expectations of themselves and of the adult world, only to find it increasingly more competitive to get into college, more difficult to pay for it, and even more challenging to find a job when they get out. Reality is clashing with expectations, prompting high levels of hopelessness and mistrust of authority among many young people, which, in my opinion, then feeds the “What’s in it for me” attitude.

Whether it is conscious or not, young people look to those older than themselves and in positions of leadership for how to react to life’s challenges. And I’m heartbroken to say that too many people of my generation are letting them down. We need more leaders in politics, business, religious organizations, schools, and in the home to model ethical behavior and provide encouragement, discipline, acceptance, and love, as well as the value of duty to others. These values are strong antidotes to WIIFM thinking.

Altering Habitual Behavior

WIIFM bad habits can be changed within organizations. Trust me, I’ve seen it happen. The answer is within the company’s culture—the “soul” of an organization based on shared values that translate into actions that focus on customers and shared organizational results. Companies with authentic values (i.e., values that are more than words in an employee handbook) are better equipped to execute strategy and have employees with a healthy external focus instead of a WIIFM focus.

Over the years I’ve observed that companies with winning corporate cultures tend to follow these steps:

Conduct a culture audit. Every business has a unique history and purpose that were built on unique values such as quality (Southwest Airlines) or innovation (Microsoft) or cost-efficiency (Wal-Mart). Some companies use professional firms that specialize in culture audits, while others conduct one-on-one and group meetings with a wide range of employees to get a real sense of their organization’s cultural strengths and weaknesses. The important step is simply doing it!

Set expectations and structure. With a clear understanding of the organization’s unique culture in mind, leaders can articulate a vision and develop a list of cultural expectations that support the past and move into the future can be developed. There are many great visioning resources available on the Internet. The next step is to objectively assess your management team to ensure everyone supports the company’s vision and values. There’s no place in leadership positions for WIIFM attitudes if you want to achieve real change in the company.

Measure results and hold people accountable. With new cultural expectations clearly in mind and a capable management team to implement them, everyone should be focused on common values that support strategy and vision. Now it’s time to get out of the way, keep communicating and modeling behavior that supports the values, and focus on holding people accountable for measurable results. The executive’s role is to help employees get the right results, the right way, by discussing how what they do fits into corporate values, vision, and strategy. When employees know how their values and talents align with your organization’s values, vision, and mission, the gap between WIIFM thinking and team success closes.

When people ask about my firm’s corporate culture and values, my answer is that our people are our greatest resource, but our reputation is our most precious asset—and it was gained in inches but can be lost in miles. The number-one threat to your business’ reputation is managers and employees with WIIFM thinking. Be a proactive leader who cares enough to escort the WIIFMs to the exit.

Mark W. Sheffert, chairman and CEO of Manchester Companies, Inc., provides investment banking and corporate renewal/performance advisory services. Contact him at mark@manchestercompanies.com.

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