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What’s in it for ME? Society’s dilemma

what-e1426943260530 Managing change is part of my day job. One of the catch phrases we use these days is “what’s in it for me”. In “selling” change in an organisation we need to show the employees, the board, the management and all other stakeholders “what’s in it for them”. If you don’t believe me, Google “change management what’s in it for me” and you will see plenty of results.

Rhiannon’s masterclass, ‘What’s in it for me?’ … and other change management challenges demonstrated how addressing the people side of change management can increase the probability of business success during periods of significant change. Source: CMC Partnership

What ever happened to what’s in it for you is you get paid and we all keep our jobs? Or what is in it for you is we will engage your firm as a preferred supplier? That might sound a bit harsh, but I’m not looking at industrial or commercial relations here, I’m looking at the me, me, me mentality of much of society. Western society at least. I always love the hashtag #FirstWorldProblems on Twitter. Provides quite a giggle a lot of the time. I often think “what’s in it for me” is distinctly a first world issue, if not a looming problem.

If we only ever do anything because of what is in it for ourselves, don’t we risk becoming a very selfish society? I have no doubt, from my own practical experience, that introducing change into the workplace is more successful if the people involved can see a personal benefit. I am no different when I am asked to change. My immediate question is “While this make my life easier or harder?” If I think the change will make my life harder, my natural inclination will be to resist the change, covertly or overtly, unless I can see a greater good for all in the change.

I’ve talked before about the differences between societies of collectivism and societies of individualism. Western societies are almost exclusively societies of individualism. I considered such individualism in a look at the feminists’ debate.

Geert Hofstede describes these cultural dimensions rather well.

The high side of this dimension, called individualism, can be defined as a preference for a loosely-knit social framework in which individuals are expected to take care of only themselves and their immediate families. Its opposite, collectivism, represents a preference for a tightly-knit framework in society in which individuals can expect their relatives or members of a particular in-group to look after them in exchange for unquestioning loyalty. A society’s position on this dimension is reflected in whether people’s self-image is defined in terms of “I” or “we.” Source:

There is research that indicates a culture of individualism leads to high growth and more progress because societies of collectivism can be assessed as anti-innovation. I stress this is one perspective, one I perceive as rather negative. Other studies present a more caring, positive picture of collectivism.

Platteau (2000) for example illustrates collective culture in the context of African development. Specifically, he documents that productive individuals are seen with suspicion and are coaxed into sharing their surplus with the community. Collective punishments exist to penalize the rich. They take the form of social ostracism, loss of status, or even violence. Communities have for example frequently used accusations of witchcraft to punish greed and acquisitiveness as well as aspirations to move to other places. Behind these punishments is the fear that the community’s cohesiveness will be undermined and that an individual who proves more successful will leave the village or will not redistribute any surplus food or production. Source: Berkeley

However, individualism gave us the Global Financial Crisis.

If you’ve been blaming reckless men for the collapse of America’s leading investment houses and the plunging markets, you may be on to something. High levels of testosterone are correlated with riskier financial behavior, new research suggests. Source: Scientific American

In a society of collectivism, this individualistic behaviour would have been curbed by the cultural norms.

I am a very firm believer in the rights of the individual. I started writing because I was denied my individual rights. I married a man from a culture of collectivism. In many respects, I live both cultures. I think there are aspects of both that humans need for survival as a species.

Collectivism worked very well in hunter-gatherer days. Collectivism ensures the elderly are cared for. Individualism gives us…..more money? Individualism gives us innovation and progress that we may or may not need as a species, but it also gives us personal greed. It gives us “what’s in it for ME”.

Gary Stamper says:

Collectivism, as a system has many faults, but individualism, which isn’t even a system, but rather the lack of a system, also has many faults. Each, by themselves are partial. The new collectivism, championed by the political left, has emerged as a response to the unbridled individualism of the political right. Source: Collapsing into Consciousness

Gary quotes Gerhard Adam:

“True individualism is not common and in our society is typically marked as being a sociopath. This is an individual for whom no social connections matter, and there is little ability to empathize with fellow humans.”

Perhaps Gary is correct, the long term solution lies in the concept of “individual collectivism”.

Individual collectivism understands that individuals need to be recognized and acknowledged within the larger social group. In our culture, it is a rare person who is able – or even wants – to act outside some sort of collective, whether its a policeman or fireman, an employee or a business owner, a sports or corporate team, a local or national culture, a religion or spiritual calling, or a political leaning, or a politician. Even as individuals, we seek like-minded people to associate with, to support and be supported, to share common goals. It is our nature.

And while we claim to abhor “collectives,” we automatically join them, leaving the impression that it’s not really about collectives at all, but rather, the freedom to choose which collective we participate in rather than our objections about collectivism. This doesn’t deny our personal identities or rob us of the choices we make regarding our participation in a collective. Source: Collapsing into Consciousness

Both individualism and collectivism have faults. Both have served a purpose at different stages of human development. Do we need something new? It is at least worth considering.

Looking back to my opening employment related situation, “What’s in it for me” only has worth providing we also consider what’s in it for the organisation that keeps us employed. For without the organisation there is no “what” for me at all. If our social fabric collapses like the global markets did, we will have nothing.

There is nothing so constant in this world as change. Perhaps this is one we need.

This is an edited version of the article originally published on Robyn’s blog.


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  1. philgorman2014

    Tank you for a thought provoking article. I suggest that some Nordic forms of Social democracy have come very close to establishing a workable balance in valuing the individual whilst benefiting from collective mores and institutions.

  2. Robyn Oyeniyi

    Thanks Phil. Yes, I believe you are correct. Maybe we need a little more of it. 🙂

  3. Lee

    “Looking back to my opening employment related situation, “What’s in it for me” only has worth providing we also consider what’s in it for the organisation that keeps us employed. ”

    It is a very interesting article and certainly true for the most part but I’m not sure I agree with this statement. I recall proposed changes in my workplace that were going to generate a lot of extra work for me. That led me to suggest more efficient ways of performing the task. Whilst the end result was of benefit to the employer (more efficient use of staff time), I was only thinking of myself when I provided a counter-proposal. At least that is how it appears to me.

  4. paul walter

    That is a really GOOD shot at relevance on some thing fundamental and tricky and while I want to mull it over a bit, a preliminary thought that comes to mind is that the suggestion that the disclocated instrumentalist mentallty described in the first para dominates financialised capitalism and drives globalisation, including apparatus like FTAs, to circumvent community responses to outside transgression.

    We have not learned to put ourselves in the shoes of the other. If life is sweet for us, should this not be the minimum standard rather than somehow an exception?

    How can a sense of well being derive of self absorption and selfishness?

    Looking after yourself is one thing but, is harming others necessarily looking after yourself in the most meaningful sense?
    The lines will always be blurry, yet I beleive I have a conscience, which of course may just a socio cultural creation, but regardless of metaphysical questions, still gives me grief under certain circumstances and I beleive most others are similarly determined through life processes.

    Of course it is “rational ” to not inflict pain on a child or animal. People’s own experience teaches them such misery anyone can do without .
    When the right of harming is permitted for one may is it not therefore be permitted others, which is a devastating and sobering thought?

  5. Robyn Oyeniyi

    Hi Lee, yes in your situation you were suggesting a change that benefited both you and the organisation. I’m really looking at the psychology of us using the “what’s in it for me” as a selling tool and how the constant use of this has a broader impact outside work. Humans start to apply the concept to everything without considering the social or environmental implications.

    We become, by default, a self-centred society, every man for himself. Sometimes change might not be great for an individual or a group of individuals, but the overall benefit to society, to the community may be worth the individual sacrifice.

  6. Robyn Oyeniyi

    Paul, mulling is GREAT! I write to encourage people to mull. The other article I published last night re GST was specifically intended to make people think. I worry that as a society we have stopped challenging what we are “told” enough.

    On the surface of it, I rather like the hybrid individual collectivism idea. Take the good aspects of both and create something better.

  7. stephentardrew

    Robyn I think both collectivism and self-interest are wedded into our culture and biology through evolutionary demand for personal survival and mutual cooperation in protection of family, village, state and country. Our overactive limbic system is, to a degree, stuck in fight/flight and pleasure/pain mode whereby the subconscious and autonomic nervous system overrider reason as clearly defined by Neurologist Joseph LeDoux and his research into fear. Evolution experiments with optimal survival strategies regardless of our ruminations and concocted narratives. The hard part is that our self-referring minds are no longer captured by pure autonomic reactivity we now have input into our choices and obligations. We do not have free will we only have nominal choice within the bounds of heritability, family and culture. Being a transitional species we are not proxy to long term evolutionary trends however pain avoidance and a demand for pleasure are universally wired into the human psyche so that cooperation, communitarianism, empathy and compassion lead us towards group survival strategies while conversely primitive fight flight mechanism propel us towards self-interest.

    Today we can see the damage greed and unbridled individualism is causing to the environment and ecology as nature is telling us that our survival depends upon a more communitarian utilisation of resources if we are going to survive. Two ethical ideas can help to enhance communitarianism. The concept of least harm and do unto others simply because, in fact, most of us want peace happiness and reasonable material security. If that is the case these moral precepts should be part and parcel of a cultural imperative to discover a sustainable and equitable society. Competition in technology and science will remain however we must dampen down our autonomic drives to more effectively utilise our rational capacity for environmental and economic equilibrium.

    These are not Utopian ideas they are simple a reasoned consequence of our poorly developed emotional drives given that we can now choose, within the constraints of material facts and causal laws, to develop sustainable and equitable societies. Our very survival may well depend upon it.

  8. townsvilleblog

    There is never anything in it for disabled pensioners who are cut off mid stream in their lives without the opportunity to make a living and save for retirement, yet this LNP rabid recalcitrant government is lowering the value of our pensions, its a disgrace. Though I don’t suppose any tories will give a bugger.

  9. Harquebus

    Community arises from individual freedoms. One should be free to support or not support ones community. Enforced support is slavery and that is pretty much what we have today. Debt slavery and the constant erosion of our freedoms and liberties for the sake of protecting the community.
    If a community is worth supporting, individuals on their own will decide to support it.

  10. stephentardrew


    Your individual freedoms are no more than a consensus myth perpetrated by those who want you to think you have more than nominal choice. Community does not arise from individual freedoms it arises from intelligent assessment of contributing factors that demand we make ethical decisions based upon evidence and the welfare of the collective. Free will is just the same nonsense as self-regulating markets, the invisible hand, trickle down etc. they have no enduring empirical foundations. Ethics are prescribed rules that guide human behavior and without a consensus set of obligations almost anything goes. The right use individual freedoms as a way to subvert empirical facts for divisive subjective judgments riddled with blame and unsupportable retribution. The left also tend to fall for a similar irrational trap. Nature imposes biological (mirror neurons) empathy; kinship, reciprocity, empathy and compassion upon us as counters to brute greed and self-interest. Nature is a complex play of imperatives divorced from simplistic notions of individuals freedoms. Your freedoms are no more than the extent of the boundaries imposed by your culture.

  11. Harquebus

    I can only partly agree. Without individual freedoms we get things like the Third Reich. How many would have supported it if they were allowed not to. Just one example.
    If it is in ones best interest to serve the community, one will. If the community ensures individual freedoms, it will be supported by the majority. Neither side of politics ensures individual freedoms and neither is respected nor has broad support.

  12. philgorman2014

    Are we trying to re-invent “The Golden Rule” here?

    “Treat others and theirs as you would have them treat you and yours” is a very ancient rule of thumb. Sadly it has been more honoured in the breach than the observance.

  13. stephentardrew


    I think there is more than enough evidence to support both least harm and do unto others based upon human consensus to avoid pain and enhance happiness, and yes, we can only achiever that through social consensus. The point is to forget free will by rather supporting ethical treatment of our fellow citizens as a communitarian approach derived from Darwinian selection in which the survival of the species depends upon mutual support and cooperation especially when the evidence clearly demonstrates so called free markets, and unbridled free will, lead to environmental destruction, gross inequality, resource depletion and possible species extinction…

  14. paul walter

    Shrewd answers from stephentardrew : Am glad someone able to develop upon Robyn Oyeniyi turned up. In particular I hope Harquebus has his/her perplexity popped like a pimple and broken out a solipsistic state of mind. No one has said basic self concern is wrong, but people need to be abit more imaginative in working out what their interests are and where they may lie.

    Ossified paralyising defeatism and fear are of no use, they just remove options and allow lethargic fatalism to set in.

    Harquebus, are you like me, an aging melancholic?

    You see much that is wrong and feel self preservation is now the only answer, so hide your head in the sand?

    That won’t help, but finding common cause with others may be appropriate and fruitful.

    Despite yourself, you may be doing that by contributing to the conversation, as your ancestors did around a campfire during the Ice Age.

    Like it or not, no one is an island; no one has eyes in the back of their head.
    People need and can easily find a personal space but to also need to participate and sometimes sublimate in the interests of others or the whole. It’s basic common sense, since the group can acheive what a lone individual can’t when pitted against the terrors of this life.

  15. rossleighbrisbane

    Um, yeah excellent we don’t just become an echo chamber.
    I intend to rip your arguments to pieces at some later date.

    In the meantime I suggest that you all read Jonathan Haidt’s book so we’re all understanding the way in which the Tea Party appeal to more of the moral thingies for reasons evolutionary.

  16. paul walter

    Rossleighbrisbane, I can’t see how your comment helps or adds to the sum total of human knowledge, without some specific examples as to claims to flaws in arguments to back your claim that arguments here are incomplete. “at some later date” is neither helpful or sufficient..

    How about “manning up” and putting your ideas into the open for scrutiny rather than sniping without contributing something alternative?

    If you have spotted something others have missed, why not contribute and maybe help the group discussing this gain a better understanding of the issue, rather than hiding your light under a bushell so to speak?

    Once again, to Bowie..”keeping dark is hateful”.

  17. stephentardrew

    Bring it on Ross it is certainly a complex problem however I can make observations from my own knowledge and context without the need for Haidt or any other pontificating ideologue. There are many ways to skin a cat however the facts lend themselves to a broad variety of interpretations. Either we get a rational handle upon facts, causation and evolutionary theory based upon justice equity and utility or we end up chasing our tails because someone criticised our legitimate and thoughtful independent observations and interpretations. I have discussed the biological basis to political prejudice before however eventually we must make a decision one way or another on what we want not on resignation to habituated research based resignation. I have Haidt’s book and think it is loaded with prejudiced. I wasn’t a conservative until I became one sort of bullshit.

  18. Jake Hodgman

    Paul Walter, your last argument could be applied to your comment too. Just saying…

  19. stephentardrew

    Sorry bout mistooks in a hurry.

  20. paul walter

    Fercrissakes, I wish people would specify what their issues are?
    Jake, I haven’t the foggiest, what mysterious li’l you could be on about.

    Enough with the meshuga, already!!

  21. Jake Hodgman

    Paul, maybe you should consider the fact that you were sniping by asking Ross to ‘man up’, yet condemning him for ‘sniping’ in your opinion… No “meshuga'” or “li’l” (whatever that is), just plain and simple logic – don’t complain about sniping if you’re just going to do the same. Maybe write your own article (like Ross has done many times) and then you might be on a level playing field to criticise his ability to articulate a viewpoint and put his ideas in the open for scrutiny (which he has done by writing in the first place). You’ve resorted to insults and emotive arguments against many commenters here whilst not contributing anything but criticism yourself, in direct contradiction to your comment. Basic debating and English skills 101. How about you get specific with your issues? Too much too ask of a critic of other people’s voice? Yes, I’m criticising your argument, but based on logic and human knowledge instead of just whinging that you didn’t get enough info the first time around. You want information? Ask specific questions! Ross isn’t being paid to answer your non-specific criticisms immediately, and heaven forbid the man has a life and is not up all hours to respond in full to your need for immediate answers… As you put it so eloquently, “fercrissakes”… you yourself wrote in a comment above that you want to ‘mull it over’. Is Ross not accorded the same respect? Is not your hatefulness dark?

  22. Sad sack

    Treat others as you expect to be treated but do it first is today’s adage for the general society.
    In the past such activity was for individuals who were able to take advantage of the poor, the slow, the kind, the handicapped and the government. These individuals are usually lauded by history.
    The characteristics of wants vs needs come into play when balanced by intelligence. In bell curve IQ terms where do the people who write to this post fit? I know I am barely outside the 90-110 range but so are 50% of the population. How many people do you know at the 100 or below? In school terms would these people be successful at literature, maths and science exams? In university terms would these people successfully complete any of the degrees you have? Many of these Australians are long term unemployed and were sent to universities for TAFE/VET courses from the centrelink budget. The pyne nut and Abbutt have fiddled the books making these Australian go into a poorman’s hecs debt. Government still pays the institutions but, I may not be smart enough to articulate, it doesn’t show up as a cost??? As for the those caught in this whirlpool, jobs are not available without training, retraining and that costs either up front or through fee help. These have changed from individual wants to systemic needs.
    (Sorry, Gough) well may labor save the top 10% from the coalition’s $100K degrees because nothing will save the rest from their $96000 training..

  23. Harquebus

    @paul walter
    Thanks for teaching me a new word and I most definitely do not have my head in the sand. Those that rely on main stream media have their heads shoved in poopaganda. Our situation is serious and we are being distracted with sporting extravaganzas and celebrity chefs. I think we will soon see Australians’ dark side and people will find out just how many friends really they do have and just how much our governments really care.

  24. paul walter

    Adhominems, anyone? Jake Hodgman your personal attack is infantile. Fwiw, it was rossleigh who erred, then yourself in a far worse way, not me. I at least made an effort at adressing the THREAD TOPIC.

  25. Jake Hodgman

    @Paul Walter. You don’t see it do you? That doing the very thing you are accusing others of is hypocritical and invalidates your argument? Using Latin and quotes from Bowie does not excuse lack of logic. Still, I shall forgive you, for you know not what you do…

  26. Jake Hodgman

    We’re all having a good laugh here, so thanks 🙂

  27. Jake Hodgman

    My mates want to contribute “ipso facto, que sera sera, look at the lawman beating up the wrong guy, is there life on Mars?” Thought I’d indulge them

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