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/Do you convey WIIFM while assigning roles to team members?

Do you convey WIIFM for motivating team?


Have you come across situations where the team members lack ownership of tasks assigned to them?  And because of lack of ownership, does the project manager have to

  • Follow-up frequently?
  • Provide instructions and guidelines on issues that team members are expected to understand and execute by themselves?
  • Motivate them frequently?

Well, if this is the case, there is a good chance that the WIIFM for the team members is being ignored while assigning their roles and responsibilities.  WIIFM stands for What’s In It For Me and answering WIIFM is a wide practice in mature organizations to ensure that employees own the responsibilities that they take up.

What is WIIFM?

Professionals work for many motives – money, designation (reputation), job satisfaction, a penchant for delivering results, networking, diving deep into technology, developing knowledge such as process knowledge & domain knowledge, growth in chosen career path etc.  While an average expected salary level is common for everybody, additional incentives can be quite motivating for some but not for all.  This additional incentive is what we mean by money as a factor of motivation.  Other motivational factors are self-explanatory.  While allocating roles and responsibilities, it helps if the project manager relates the role and responsibility to the career aspiration of the team member.  That is, the question – ‘What’s In It For Me if I take up this role?’ has to be answered for the team member.  If this is done, the team member is most likely to develop ownership of his role and is more likely to be happy to go the extra mile to deliver results.  This insight may appear to be common sense; however, practicing it is quite tricky as it can backfire if not implemented cautiously.  Therefore, analysing the tricky nature of WIIFM and illustrating simple ways of practicing it with real life examples is the purpose of this article.

Digging deeper into WIIFM

If there is ownership, the team members would not wait for instructions and would travel the extra mile to deliver the results.  On the contrary if the team member lacks ownership, s/he would develop a distance with his/her work and this would not only result in reduced productivity, but also in other consequences such as not being self-driven, not figuring out certain details by themselves etc.  Therefore, it is important to ensure that team members own their work and not develop a distance with it.  This is better illustrated with an experiment.

An interesting experiment that I have come across in team building exercises is as follows:  A weighty object, typically a big stone is kept and a boundary strip is marked next to the stone.  Workshop participants have to stand outside the boundary strip, lift the stone and hold it in air as long as they can.  Depending on the weight of the stone, either many participants fail to lift the stone or even if they lift, they won’t be able to hold it for long.  This happens because they are lifting the stone from a distance due to the boundary strip and it requires more energy to lift the stone from a distance.  In the next step, the boundary strip is removed and participants are allowed to stand close to the stone and lift it.  In this attempt, most will be able to lift the stone and hold it much longer than they could, during the first attempt.  Moral of the experiment is that when there is a distance between the task and the performer, execution of the task becomes more tedious.

This physical illustration holds true in the emotional sphere also.  If an employee doesn’t feel that the work that he is carrying out belongs to him, then he would find it tedious.  It is because of this tediousness that quality suffers and it takes more time to deliver.  WIIFM would come to the rescue here.

Using WIIFM for motivating team in simple ways

Dealing with WIIFM can be quite tricky as it can be counter-productive at times.  When the team members’ aspirations are captured, it raises their expectation bar and if there is no attempt to fulfil the aspirations, it can lead to disheartenment and further lack of ownership.  On the other hand meeting the aspirations as-is can also be quite challenging as it may infeasible, or unjustified or may be against company policy.  Some may be expecting a fast promotion and may not yet deserve; giving them promotion raises the expectation bar of others and can be counter-productive on the others.  Some may be expecting a salary increment that may be disproportionate to what they deserve and it may be over and above the company policies.  So, meeting the aspirations as-is could also troublesome.  Therefore, the best way out is to meet the aspirations in a judicious and balanced way.  After capturing the aspirations of the team member, the project manager has to think about them honestly and try to meet the aspirations to the extent possible within the project context.  Two anecdotes below illustrate simple and pragmatic ways in which WIIFM of team members have been fulfilled –

  • The project involved a legacy application based on IBM AS 400 and the project manager did carry out simple one-on-one meetings with the team members during the project initiation.  One of the star performers of the project expressed that he is interested in Java and not in AS 400 technology.  When asked by the project manager as to why he is specific about Java, the team member answered that Java projects are technologically more challenging and handling more challenging assignments would give him better satisfaction than run-of-the-mill projects.  The project manager took this aspiration seriously, but was obviously not in a position to meet it as the project did not involve any Java component.  So, he told the team member that if he performs well in this project, he would recommend to his account manager to try for a shift to a Java project for his next assignment.  Secondly, he assigned him a module that had maximum complexity within the AS 400 technology.  This move by the project manager kept the team member content, if not delighted and helped him to take complete ownership and concentrate on his task.  His WIIFM was addressed.  This was a success for the project manager and the key to this success was the fact that the project manager listened to the team member’s aspiration keenly and tried his best to fulfil the aspiration.  This gesture by the project manager made the team member feel important and cared-for and the fact that he did not get what he exactly wanted did not matter much.
  • In another case, the project was on-going and a senior member who was in a similar rank to that of other module leaders of the project joined the project.  The project manager had a one-on-one meeting with the new senior member soon and found out that the new member is slightly position conscious and wanted a module leader position.  Even though he was not technologically very sound, he was enthusiastic to learn and dive deep into technology.  The project manager could not afford to assign a module leader position to the new member as there were no vacant positions available.  So, the project manager dug deeper into the senior members aspiration and understood that career growth and exploration of technology were the primary interests of this person and offered him a Quality Assurance manager’s position.  The reason with which he convinced the new member was that QA Manager is a senior position and suits the seniority level of the new member.  Secondly, QA manager’s position gets exposed to the entire functionality of the application and also offers opportunity to understand the technology if not diving deep into the technology.  These two reasons were convincing enough for the new member and he took up the role with enthusiasm.  Considering that many people would not take up a quality related role voluntarily, the ownership with which the new member took up the QA role was a success achieved by the project manager.


In the corporate world, it is not that a professional would always get what s/he wants and there would always be compromises.  But, if handled carefully, this compromise would not leave them with distaste but would make them view positively what they have at hand.  And the method used by the project managers in the above two cases is no rocket science and is instead simple, pragmatic and can be followed by most.

Bottom line is – it may not be possible to fulfil the aspirations of the team members in Toto, but listening to them with interest and honestly trying to meet the aspiration in whatever way possible within the limits goes a long way in increasing the involvement and ownership of the team members.

I would invite the readers to share any other ways of meeting the WIIFM for the team members, specific incidents or just about any other view-points.


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