Career Coach: Entitlement at work? What’s a manager to do?

Recently, when conducting an online chat for The Washington Post, some readers had asked me questions about why we have such an entitlement culture at work and what to do about it. This questions sparked some interesting commentary and follow-up. Given this, I decided to devote this column to the topic of entitlement.

Most definitions refer to entitlement as the belief that you deserve to be given something, such as special privileges. For example, an employee may say “I will always have a job here regardless of my performance,” or “I’m owed a promotion to management because I’ve been here five years.” Generally, it refers to issues around security, status and bureaucracy.

This is different than a culture that focuses on continuous improvements and everyone is striving to make improvements. Interestingly, in my leadership workshops, some managers worry that if they give rewards or recognition to employees, they will come to expect these rewards and feel entitled to them. In some cases, this is true, while in other cases, employees do not seem to act entitled.

So what’s a manager to do? Here’s some tips for managing the issue:

Be clear about job expectations and rewards. Employees need to see the use of contingent rewards based on performance. And these rewards do not have to be given every single time a person does something noteworthy at work. We don’t want employees to feel that they are “owed” rewards every time they do something. For example, if they receive a bonus every year (regardless of performance), they may come to believe it is part of their compensation plan.

Be clear about what you are willing to share. In today’s decentralized U.S. companies, many employees feel that they should have access to all information that the chief executive has access to. Of course, this can’t be the case as there is confidential information about employees, jobs and financials that they should not have access to. Yet, they feel entitled to know everything.

Address the issue with workers who act entitled. Talk with them to learn more about where this view has come from (e.g., from a previous manager’s style or behaviors, peer behaviors, etc.). Focus on getting them to change their behaviors (if needed) to be more aligned with your organization’s goals. Make sure that employees know certain behaviors are unacceptable.

Implement a developmental feedback system so everyone can get accurate data. Make sure to examine potential derailers. Give training to managers on how to give feedback, so they know how to deal with providing difficult or constructive feedback instead of avoiding it. Provide multiple source feedback. Those who have difficulties hearing negative feedback are more likely to agree with it if they see it comes from multiple sources (i.e., all their peers rated them low). Also, give training to everyone on how to receive feedback. The research often shows that entitled workers have trouble hearing negative feedback and are inclined to complain about their bosses, seeing them as abusive and then wanting to sue them for hassling them.

Document any improvement plan. Make sure employees get realistic feedback and develop an action plan.

Help employees learn how to deal with failures and develop strategies for moving on. Some employees have troubles coping with failure and instead blame others for their own problems as if they are not responsible at all.

Make employees responsible for their own professional development plan. Rather than having managers write an employee’s plan, have the employee show initiative and take ownership for their progress.

Some would say that if we have an entitlement culture at work, that we have created it by not making people have to work for certain things or not rewarding based on performance. If this is the case, then it should be our responsibility to change this culture.

Using some of the tips above is one starting point.

Joyce E. A. Russell is the vice dean and the director of the Executive Coaching and Leadership Development Program at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. She is a licensed industrial and organizational psychologist and has more than 25 years of experience coaching executives and consulting on leadership and career management. She can be reached at jrussell@rhsmith.umd.edu.

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