What’s In It For Me? WIIFM in Safety


By Phil La Duke

Let’s suppose your spouse’s cousin asks you for a favor…a big favor (not a sexual favor get your mind out of the gutter). After he unveils his scheme to make big money with little effort and all he needs from you is $10,000 and he can see a $80,000 return in just six short months. Since he makes no mention of interest, a reciprocal favor, or even of paying you back, you’re likely to ask, “why should I?” or “What’s in it for me?” After all $10 grand is a lot of money (about a third of a good safety practitioner’s annual wage) and you worked hard for it…well not exactly hard, I mean you weren’t working in a limestone quarry swinging a pickaxe…but you did earn it…okay some might argue with that point as well…at any rate it’s YOURS and you aren’t just going to give it to some shirt-tail relative with his hand out.

In adult education the idea of “What’s In It For Me” commonly called WIIFM (pronounced “whiff em”) is seen as a key to adult learners. Children will learn because the teacher is an authority figure and there are real life consequences for not learning. Adults have a choice whether to listen to you or not and that choice is made very early in the discussion. Far more likely than not, the adult learner will decide in short order whether or not you are worth listening to and that depends largely on the perceived benefit to the adult; the WIIFM. WIIFM can be boiled down to two elements: “are you credible?” and “is what you are offering personally going to benefit me?”

It would make perfect sense to assume that everyone can see the personal value in workplace safety, after all isn’t coming home safe in a state of aliveness reward enough?, but in many cases that assumption is just plain wrong. First, in a lot of cases the safety professional lacks the requisite credibility for workers to take him or her seriously. Throughout my career I have met some truly brilliant safety professionals, but then again, I have met many puffed up mouth breathers who think that by nature of their safety merit badge people should listen to whatever dreck they drool out their gaping gobs.

Too many safety professionals miss the important first step of establishing credibility and rapport. Establishing credibility is more than convincing people that you know what you’re talking about, that you have a real command of safety in all its forms. Credibility also means that you have standing to talk to ME about MY world. I have worked the lines of assembly lines, swung a sledge hammer doing demolition work, worked construction, was a farm hand and a janitor, (with my mouth and attitude its tough to keep a job) but none of those things mean squat to a worker in hotel maintenance. Unless I can draw parallels between my job experience and his I won’t ever truly be credible. I have to be able to demonstrate my understanding and empathy quickly. Sometimes I have been effective by turning that around, and admitting flat out that I don’t know what it’s like to work as breeder on an emu ranch, and then ask for his help in helping to explain the challenges of that world. It’s a powerful dynamic that usually works. If I show genuine interest in understanding other people’s worlds they will generally share their frustrations and   challenges. If I can empathize with their struggles it generally establishes enough credibility to satisfy the first part of credibility. Because I have admitted that I don’t know what they go through I can be trusted; I’m not a know it all. In fact, in these instances I have shared a safety concept and had a person ask me a question like, “okay that’s fine for oil and gas, but how does that apply to the entertainment business”. That may sound like a challenge to your authority, and safety professionals who believe that their authority and credibility rests on their 56 years of experience or the letters after their name (PCP, CHIMP, etc.) will be outraged that someone dare question them on this, but in fact, this is an invitation to have a dialog, where the two of you (and others in the group) can use your experience in other industries and education and their first hand knowledge or their situation to together solve the riddle. It’s a great place to be, because it demonstrates that they have already found some portion of WIIFM and you can build from there.

The second part of credibility (and thus WIIFM) lies in whether what you have to say is valuable to the listener. If your message is relative to working at heights, and I know (or believe) that I will never work at heights than listening to you is at least perceived to be (if not actually) a waste of time. It doesn’t matter that a good portion of your message applies to everyone (everyone needs to know to remind people to where height protection, or people need to be aware of the dangers posed to people on the ground when people are working above them) because as soon as the listener has decided that the message doesn’t apply to them they stop listening and don’t resume listening later. In these cases I usually start the message with the most general information first “working at heights poses a risk to all workers—the person working at heights could fall obviously, but people working beneath the improperly secured worker could be injured when the worker falls on him or her or by a dropped tool, and because we are all at risk we all need to remind workers who are going to be working at heights to use fall protection”). From there, it’s important to address the population least at risk first and continue narrowing the focus until you get to the relative handful of workers who need it the most.

Another factor that we battle in safety in creating a meaningful WIIFM is that a lot of the stuff that we have to say or present to all employees under penalty of law, doesn’t really apply to all workers and they know it. Where’s the benefit of requiring me to where steel-toed shoes when I might go into an area where there might be a possibility that I might encounter a hazard with which I might interact and if I interact I might have a heavy object fall on my toes and the steel toed shoes might prevent my toes from being crushed? Yeah right, and the moon MIGHT fall out of the sky so be sure and wear your hard hats at nights