I was called into a meeting at the last minute. I couldn’t help but think, based on past experiences, that this is never a good thing. I was right. A colleague was upset with me and the boss decided to bring us together to work it out. The most interesting aspect of the meeting was not what we discussed. It was one of the things that was brought up about my personality. I was told I have a “Wiff ‘Em” personality. I had to ask what that was. Turns out that is how you pronounce the acronym WIIFM, which stands for “what’s in it for me?”. My boss and colleague didn’t mean it critically, or at least not too critically. What they were trying to point out is my thought process, which is transactional in nature. This isn’t exactly a surprise when you consider the fact that I was in sales for the first half of my career, and now part of my responsibilities is to be a coordinator over many disparate organizations, the majority of whom are businesses. Every single thing we do is transactional in nature. When I approach a problem, I have to understand what the other party wants out of the interaction. In every instance in my professional life the people I’m dealing with want to know what is in it for them.
I think that’s the reason why other people find my approach to problem solving and my worldview as a bit abrasive. It’s not really that I care less, it’s my tendency to boil things down to the most salient points. This is not how any of my other colleagues think or at least not how they overtly think. They are normal, and believe we do things out of the goodness of our hearts. I have a couple of examples that identify the differences in my thinking vs. the rest of the world.
Let’s take for example a young female I know. She is very active in many different churches but is also a millennial. This means she shares the morals of that generation regardless of traditional religious beliefs. She has had many different intimate relationships from her late teens into her early twenties. She got very mad at me when I rather crassly argued that she’s jumping in bed from one guy to another. She took it as being called a whore because the guys are always doing stuff for her. In her mind she was thinking the transaction was more aligned to prostitution. That wasn’t my intent.
At the time I was trying to argue that if you have only ever been in codependent relationships with boy after boy, it’s very difficult to learn how to be independent. She has, in fact, never actually had her own place. Nor has she learned how to be effective at basic life functions like managing money, preparing for the future, being disciplined in setting and keeping goals, or really anything that will create a foundation for growth and stability in life independent of her interpersonal relationships.
What she enters into are broad transactional relationships. For example, when the new boy is a subject matter expert, she is getting knowledge of topics she’s uncomfortable with, advice and direction on decision making around those topics, and emotional reinforcement. In return she is providing emotional reinforcement, a social partner, and domestic functions inclusive of intimacy. The behavior is, in fact, serial marriages without any of the legality or formality. Anybody who’s ever been married will tell you that marriage, by it’s very inception, a highly complex transactional relationship. In fact, one of the basis for traditional marital annulment is if one party can prove the other party did not meet their marital obligations.
The point of this young ladies story is that it’s demonstrative of the difference between how I see the world, i.e. how I believe it actually is, and how she, and really most people including my boss and colleagues, see it. She didn’t see her relationships as transactional. She didn’t think that on some level both her and her guys were thinking “What’s in it for me?” The emotions involved and the macro culture as well as her limited life experiences all worked together to create a more visceral reaction to my comment.
Where my first example was in a specific situation, my second example has more to do with our culture at large. I’m talking about the holy grail of emotionally driven non-transactional thinking, ie, children. When the world looks at children, what they see are helpless individuals that we should give to without any reserve. Part of that is true in technical terms as children don’t have a way to fend for themselves in the earlier years of their development. It doesn’t belie the fact that every aspect about children is transactional, even including their conception, as I alluded to earlier. Kids don’t comprehend much of the transactional nature, but it is there. It starts at the very beginning. It’s even biological. I have been told that there is a new baby smell that is like a mix between light intoxication and an aphrodisiac for those without children. More importantly, the child, or the process of starting a family is intensely emotional and a bit self centered, at least if it’s planned in advance. You never hear somebody considering having a child discussing all of the things that they can selflessly give to the child. In my experience the conversation is always about what the person is going to get out of being a new parent. At this earliest stage, even before conception, the transactional relationship is starting. “I will create this type of person, we will have this type of experience together, and I will show my success compared to other parents because my new child will exhibit this type of behavior” the parent is thinking. Of course, not being part of the original agreement the child typically does not honor the transaction, especially if the inexperienced new parent thinks they will train the child to behave a certain way. Regardless of what the parent expects, 10 year old boys tend to think things like swinging from a ceiling fan when they are bored is a good idea.
Through its existence the child offers certain justifications for acquisitions and or decision making throughout the parents’ child rearing years. “I have a child, therefore I have to acquire X or I have to do X.” This can be seen as either transactional or altruistic. There’s other elements, including the idea of long term entitlement on the part of the parent. “I raised you, you owe me X”. This happens around the time that the guise of altruistic giving on the part of the parent has evaporated. I recall one story of an NFL player who, upon signing his first contract with his new team, was immediately told by his mother, “you owe me one million dollars”.
I think there is an element of self deception on the part of the types of people who believe that parent child relationships are inherently non-transactional. I’ve often heard parents say things like “Yes, but she’s going to be the one holding your hand when you are older” when I expressed frustration about some of the behaviors of my daughter. This tells me that even in the back of their minds, they are thinking that there is a longer term transactional aspect to the relationship.
I talked about children, but it’s beyond children. This topic of transitional relationships, or the perception that relationships aren’t transactional when in fact they are, covers many different areas of our life. think about the relationship between an individual and their community. There’s also an individual and their school or government. The individual who volunteers regularly, is getting something out of it. Usually it’s entrance into a community of some sort.
The inflection points between transactional thinking and altruism really is emotions and related social enculturation. It’s easy not to see things as transactional if there are intense emotions backed by societal norms at play. This is the part that always gets me in trouble. I’m analytical in my thinking, and my friends who are more analytical tend not to ostracize me for my comments. I’ve had many other people, more normal people, react quite negatively when I discuss the transactional nature of things.
Going back to our marquee example of children, I’ve had at least two people eject me from their life because I had the audacity to say that the return on your investment for children is filled with intense risk and is usually negative. By default, this makes it a very bad investment of time, energy, and resources. It follows that my decision for having children was a mistake. It was a bad transaction. For some people, that logic is absolute heresy.
That of course is the extreme. More normally, I just have a tendency to not make friends easily as they find my conversation or opinions abrasive. Going back to my colleague and the boss, There is limited social interaction with them outside of work. There’s a lot of reasons for this, but I can’t help but think one of them is that my personality driven by my thought process is too alien for them to be comfortable around. Comfort is driven by the familiar, a lesson I learned decades ago in college.
Another example of my WIIFM personality can be seen with the young lady I cited earlier. To me it’s understandable that most of her relationships melt down. As she makes emotional decisions, she’s not seeing the transactional nature inherent in them. Eventually she enters into a situation where she’s making an emotional decision that is against the transactional norms of her relationship. That typically turns into a fight. “Why did you go over there when I told you I don’t like that person?” Could be the genesis of an argument. The boy in question, who probably felt they were in a guiding role because of all the other aspects of the relationship where they were the decision maker, naturally expected the girl to follow his guidance. The girl could not wrap her head around the idea that if she lets him make most of the decisions he’s going to feel he gets to make all of them. Several situations like this later, and both of them are looking for a new life partner. When the young lady comes to me upset and arguing that her latest boy was unreasonable I will most likely respond “whose fault is that considering you let him make every other decision in your life?”
I think the flip side of the social challenges of my WIIFM personality is that it helps me be more effective in life and work. If everything is a transaction then by understanding those transactions, I can meet people’s needs more easily. This is the good part of WIIFM. Somebody who looks at the world is transactional, and is not inherently evil, is always trying to find a win-win for all parties in any transaction.
Another benefit to this type of thinking as a fundamental part of my personality is that it also helps me understand why certain things in life work well together and others don’t. In my work world there are great initiatives that come along. Usually, at their inception, I can tell if it’s going to work or not based upon transactional thinking. It doesn’t matter what the stated goals are, if the incentive isn’t there, then it tends not to work. This can help me be effective.
If the move to a less emotional and more analytical world is a macro trend, I feel like I’m a little bit ahead of the curve on this one. I have oft cited the fact that organizations have become so transactional in how they treat human beings, they have trained a generation, specifically the millennials, to think “what’s in it for me?” in most of the aspects of their professional lives. I don’t think this will change until we have a structural change in how employers must deal with their workforce. Workforces are made of people. Most people are emotional. That emotional decision making will creep into the organization if employees have some form of impactful decision making power. Until that time, transactional thinking business people and automation will make decisions based on predetermined benefits to the organization.
I can’t really change who I am, not on a foundational level at least. I really would like to be able to connect with people better on an emotional level, but I don’t think I’ll ever be able to hide my transactional personality. Those who are driven with emotional decision-making and do not understand the transactional nature of their decision making will always see me as alien and uncomfortable.
The world needs all kinds. I may be challenged in some social settings, in part because of my inherent transactional thinking. This also allows me to excel in what I do professionally and with the people who need this type of thinking around them to be successful in what they do. I guess this means in some instances, for people who are dealing with Mike Peluso, it is the ultimate win-win and for others it’s the ultimate win-lose. I wish I could do more to change the latter but at least my thought process helps me to understand There is little I can do to change my reality so I shouldn’t worry about it, at least not until I can figure out a way that interacting with emotionally oriented people will benefit them and me.