The Rise of the Entitlement Mentality

September 08, 2017  |   Posted by :   |   YPHR Blog

Do your employees believe that they do not have to earn what they are given?  Do they believe that they get something because they are owed it, because they are entitled to it?  Do they think they should get what they want because of who they are, not because of what they do?canstockphoto21299660

It is, perhaps, one of the most frustrating experiences in managing human resources: You go to great lengths and expense to design compensation and benefit plans that will keep employees motivated and happy, and, over time, employees come to expect them as their due.  Privileges become rights and perks lose their power to improve performance, which means that the benefits bar is raised higher and higher.  Expenses soar, eating into the bottom line. 

This ironic reality is a phenomenon called “employee entitlement.”  It manifests itself in the workplace in many ways: the poor performer who asks for a severance package after being fired, the employee who fails to meet sales goals but demands a bonus anyway, or those who expect bonuses just for fulfilling the basic bullet points on a job description. 

The origin of the employee entitlement phenomenon can be traced back to a faulty ‘psychological contract’ between the organization and the employee.  It is an implicit understanding on the part of an employee about what he or she contributes to the organization and what can be expected from it in return.  This contract is usually formed by a combination of an employee’s personal history – experiences at other companies, for example – and by what a manager states or subtly hints concerning what the employee will receive for his efforts.  When the employee expects to receive what the manager is promising (either directly or indirectly), the result is a feeling of entitlement to everything that the employee actually gets.

Expressed simply, entitlement is the result of too much generosity.  It occurs when we give people what they expect while not holding them accountable for meeting our criteria for excellence.  In business, it typically happens because managers are unwilling to do the hard work that comes with requiring excellence.  Frequently, it is a result of wanting to avoid conflict and bad feelings.  Or, it arises from pity:  we do not hold people accountable for results because we do not think they can perform.  Whatever the reason, over time, employees feel entitled when they have so much security that they do not have to earn their rewards.

When people do not have to earn what they get, they soon take for granted what they receive.  The real irony is that they are not grateful for what they get.  Instead, they want more.  It is the terrible cycle of entitlement.  Here are some strategies to help you eliminate this attitude within your organization.

  • Increase Accountability Through Evaluations – Employees need to be held accountable for doing real work, and that work must be evaluated.  The bulk of the accountability must be for the core job functions, or most important parts of a person’s responsibilities.  In other words, identify what is “real work” and decide how to evaluate it.  Then reinforce evaluation results by tying compensation to performance.
  • Require Ongoing Risk Taking – Since entitlement is the result of too little risk, organizations should require that people experience challenge on an ongoing basis, even without a job change.  Using this strategy, employees are not allowed to become or to remain narrowly-focused experts, nor are they permitted to become complacent, because tackling new assignments require learning and risk taking.
  • Increase Visibility and Peer Pressure – The key here is to make employee performance more visible, and you do that by flattening the hierarchy.  Within complex structures, workers can hide in bureaucracy by handing decisions up, creating committees or by otherwise passing along responsibilities.  With a leaner and flatter structure, everyone is more visible. 
  • Reward Differentially, Increase Conditionally – The compensation packages being offered at many companies are changing.  More and more, employees are paid for contribution, not status.  As this transition occurs, people come to realize that they can directly influence their rewards by how much they contribute.  Those who make a greater contribution earn more, and seniority loses its place in the equation.  Increasingly, companies are disclosing more financial information and making it clear “If we are profitable, you get a bonus.”  Rewards are possible, but there are conditions to be met.
  • Make Leadership Visible – Employees typically look to their leaders to assure them that the future will be better.  Most deal with their sense of vulnerability by depending on those in command.  As a leader, increase your approachability; employees need to know that they can gain access to management.  Get out of the office – literally.  Be seen talking to people.  Have lunch in the company cafeteria; stop and talk to people in all areas of the organization. 
  • Create Trust in the Organization – Employees want to find strength and continuity in their institutions.  Trust is increased when leadership identifies and addresses any discrepancies between management statements and actions.  Make sure your mission and vision are not just statements hanging on the wall. 
  • Publicize Achievements and Restore Confidence – During times of anxiety, employees will need a sense that the organization is successfully coping with the details as a signal that it can tackle larger problems.  Therefore, even small increments of problem solving success should be publicized.  Similarly, people who accomplish goals must be heralded.  Reward contributions visibly and significantly.
  • Create Procedures to Enforce Fairness – People need to be assured that they are protected from bias or prejudice on the part of those who control what happens to them.  This can be communicated by building the protection of fairness into the system.  Be sure that your organization’s performance evaluations, compensation, promotion, and other HR practices are consistent, legal and fair.
  • Communicate Goals and Plans – Leaders need to communicate that they have significant influence, if not outright control, over the present and future direction of the organization. Translate general goals into very concrete ones.  Create specific targets, identify key competitors, and create a consistent, meaningful way of measuring overall performance. 
  • Empower –Empowerment means sharing power and increasing autonomy throughout the organization.  It means giving everyone – not just people with certain positions or certain job titles – the legitimate right to make judgments, form conclusions, reach decisions, and then act.  The result of this is ownership – literally, a feeling of responsibility for organizational outcomes, and a subsequent breaking down of entitlement.

Uprooting entitlement is not easy.  It is difficult to get people to give up the warm blanket of protection.  Those who have been accustomed to years of entitlement will sometimes resist even small increments of risk, avoid accountability and flee from evaluations.  Often, entitlement is embedded in an organization’s rules and enshrined in its culture.  In these cases, it can take a significant shock to the system – the motivation that comes with a crisis – to change things.  But see how the benefits outweigh the challenges of the effort and act now; it’s time to BREAK IT!

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Amy Shannon 1Amy B. Shannon is the President of Pinnacle Leadership Solutions, LLC, and a Partner at Your Partner in HRShe has specialized in Organizational Development, Human Resources, Leadership Training and Executive Coaching for over 20 years. She focuses her time in the executive coaching and leadership facilitator roles. 

The best advice given to her clients is to view learning as a new adventure and embrace lifelong learning as a way of life.

Professionally, Amy feels a sense of accomplishment when her coaching clients achieve their goals or receive promotions as a direct result of working on their interpersonal skills! Her greatest corporate accomplishment was establishing a corporate university in three languages and eight countries along with becoming a speaker at the Disney Institute. Personally, above all, her two boys!


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