Everyone listens to the same internal station: WIIFM (what’s in it for me?). It’s not that we’re selfish or egocentric. We’re simply human. So it’s natural to wonder what impact or benefit we may derive from something we’re about to experience.

This principle is worth considering as you develop and deliver training. If you count training as successful if people just show up, sit through the session and don’t complain, almost anything can pass. But if you want to make a positive and measurable impact on people’s thinking and behaviors, if you want them to do better and be better, you must explicitly address their WIIFM needs. That requires understanding the importance of purpose and meaning on the job. To explore the concept of WIIFM, I talked with several experts.

Dave Ulrich, who’s written more than 30 HR books (including “The Why of Work”), said it’s crucial to help people make clear connections among their personal values, their daily work and the training they receive. “There’s an old fable of the three bricklayers all working on the same wall,” he said. “Someone asked the bricklayers, ‘What you are doing?’ The first said ‘I’m laying bricks.’ The second bricklayer replied, ‘I’m building a wall.’ And the third answered, ‘I’m building a great cathedral for God.’ The third had a vision of how the daily tasks of laying bricks fit into a broader, more meaningful purpose. Likewise, people who envision the outcomes of their daily routines find more meaning from doing them.”

When we train, Ulrich said, we can’t just present material. We must ensure there’s a clear connection between the training content and the personal values and aspirations of the people we want to influence.

It’s possible, of course, that the people you want to train are not yet clear on their own values. It’s possible that some of them feel trapped in their work; they’re either bored silly or they’re just putting in time. Elizabeth B. Crook, a career coach and author of “Live Large,” suggests two activities for people who are unclear about the meaning and purpose in their work. A good trainer can use these exercises to help position learning content so workshop participants can make clear connections to the activities and outcomes they value.

First, get curious:

  • Look at the activities you do at work; write each one on a sticky note.
  • Sort the notes: Which activities energize you, and which ones leave you feeling drained?
  • Is there a theme or pattern? Take note.
  • Identify which activities you could delegate or streamline.
  • Identify how what energizes you adds value to your organization, and be specific (it increases customer retention, reduces accidents, reduces turnaround time, reduces waste, increases productivity, etc.).
  • Schedule a meeting with your boss to talk about how you can add more value. (Hint: You will be adding more value if you’re doing something you care about.)

“As our lives and careers evolve, we may find ourselves losing the interest and drive in our work that once fueled us,” Crook said. “As the saying goes, our ‘get up and go’ got up and went.”

What to do? Discovering or rediscovering our “why” or purpose is an important first step, and it’s easier than we think. Crook suggests this: “On one side of a sheet, write all those jobs or assignments you enjoyed or found fulfilling in some way. Remember, this can include volunteer or unpaid work. Opposite each one, write why it was satisfying.

“When you’ve finished, look at the ‘Whys’ running down the page. What are the words or ideas you see repeated? There may be several words that repeat. A clear statement may emerge or words that hold special meaning for you. There is no one right way. Once you know your purpose, you can use it to guide you to where you can fulfill that purpose and use your gifts and talents while you do so.”

Another way to ensure that training content hits the mark is to link it to the feedback received by training participants. Bill George, bestselling author of “Discover Your True North” and former chairman at Medtronic, believes that self-awareness is a key to performance improvement.

“Honest feedback – especially 360 feedback – is imperative,” he said. “Feedback from your boss can certainly be helpful, but feedback from your subordinates and peers can be especially valuable. They see you every day. They see the good, the bad and the ugly. It’s important that you really listen to people trying to give you honest feedback. I’m a big believer in processes that provide written feedback on things that people may not wish to tell you in person.” That feedback can then be tied to skills and behaviors highlighted in training.

Of course, before any training can provide a good return on investment, it must have meaning in itself. It must be explicitly linked to the cause served by the people receiving the training. That point is emphasized by Rich Berens, co-author of “What Are Your Blind Spots?”: “If you don’t have clarity on what you really believe is your cause – your ‘why you do what you do’ – you’ll be in trouble,” he said. “Clarity of purpose is foundational for all organizations.”

From clarity, you need to have a compelling story to tell around your purpose or belief. You could have a great cause or purpose, but if you can’t articulate it and share it, then it means nothing. “From there you could have a great story,” Berens said. “But if no one is engaged, then you are just telling people. They need to feel like they’re part of the story.”

Next, you need to activate this story and bring it to life by trusting your people to give their best selves to make it happen. That’s where training enters the picture. When people feel genuinely connected and committed to a clear purpose, they take psychological ownership of outcomes. That’s when training becomes more than just an event to be endured. It’s a welcome activity that enhances engagement and boosts performance.

Want better ROI on your training? Be sure to have compelling answers to your participants’ WIIFM questions.

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