Leading Change: Is “What’s In It for Me?” the Right Question to Ask?

By Shawn E. Quinn

When I talk to executives who are trying to effect some kind of change in their people, they often work from one of the basic processes for leading change. Typically, they’ll start by looking for the burning platform and trying to think through what the benefit is for each person whom the change will affect. 

But is “What’s in it for me?” the right question to ask during the change process? Some PhD students a colleague of mine was supervising challenged that assumption with a simple but telling experiment. 

Doctoral candidate Adam Grant learned the University of Michigan Health System hospital was always trying to make sure all people using the bathrooms were regularly washing their hands to reduce the spread of germs.  Grant and his colleague David Hofmann got to thinking about motivation, and a study was born. In half the bathrooms, signs were posted that read, “Hand hygiene prevents you from catching diseases.”  In the other half, “Hand hygiene prevents patients from catching diseases.” 

At the end of the study period, Grant and Hofmann went back to see how much hand gel (soap) had been used in each bathroom.  Had the signage increased hand gel use? In those bathrooms with signs about preventing oneself from catching diseases, there was a 0% increase in hand gel use. But those bathrooms whose signs focused on protecting patients saw a 33% increase in hand gel use. Published in the journal  Psychological Science in 2011, their paper “It’s Not All About Me: Motivating Hospital Hand Hygiene by Focusing on Patients” offers much to think about.  

Is it possible that people are more easily prompted to help others than to help themselves? My cousin’s son is recovering from a serious car accident that has kept him hospitalized for many weeks, with his parents at his bedside, four hours from home. My cousin is a firefighter. In his absence, his colleagues have volunteered to cover all his shifts. It’s not just about making sure he’ll still have a job when he gets back. His fellow firefighters are also asking that he receives the pay he would have earned during that time. 

Meaning. Context. Impact. Change will be the most engaging when people see beyond how it might benefit them to a way in which it transforms the lives of others.

How can you find out what matters to the people you manage and lead? What can you do to link those priorities with the change your organization needs?