How do you deal with entitled people?  I’ve been confronted this issue twice in the past few months. One involved a student, and the other a client’s organization.  While the circumstances are different the behaviour is similar.

In the case of one student in my class he challenged a mark I gave him, and treated it as a personal affront that I would not grade his paper as an “A”.  Despite providing constructive feedback his focus remained the grade, and the competition for higher marks was what appeared to guide his behaviour.

In the second instance, employees in a client’s organization refused to feedback on a proposed initiative developed by the owner, and even went so far as to challenge his authority and scope of decision-making.

What is entitlement?

Simply put, a sense of entitlement involves an individual who strongly believes that he/she is deserving of certain privileges or benefits by reason of their social position, role or authority.  To be clear, entitlement does not mean that anyone who challenges or questions an action or decision is, by their behaviour, entitled.  Rather, what differentiates entitlement from questioning is the arrogance with which an individual advances their personal position or self-interest, and the significant benefit that they hope to receive.

In the case of my student he approached me during the break in a class, berated me for giving him what he considered a low mark (it was actually 75%, so it wasn’t as if I failed him), and told me that he was applying to another school and needed the best grades to secure admission.  He then informed me in a very blunt and uncompromising tone that he expected more than 80%.  I took him outside the classroom, told him I would, with his permission, arrange for a colleague to grade his paper, and advised that whatever mark was the higher he would receive.  He reluctantly agreed.  My colleague graded the paper at 65%.

In the second instance, staff told the head of a client’s organization that they would not provide feedback on a particular project that was being proposed.  They issued a separate set of directives on what they would prefer which effectively berated the client for the way business was being conducted.  My client is, at time of writing, contemplating their options.

In evaluating options, I’ve looked at different research on the subject.  There is a stream of thought which infers that Millennials are the most frequent source of this behaviour, and that it stems from a lack of emotional maturity and a belief that they either can’t or won’t take responsibility for the consequences of their behaviour or actions.

Techniques for dealing with entitlement:

There is another body of thinking that believes that the advent of our social welfare state has done much to perpetuate the belief that individuals need to be coddled and cradled throughout the lives.  Just as the welfare state protects its citizens so entitlement proponents maintain that much should be provided and is owed to them by their employer.

I’m not sure if either of these perspectives is right.  What I do know is that entitlement is spreading, and people I am talking to from academics to business professionals are often at a loss to understand how to deal with it.

I believe there are two dimensions to dealing with this behaviour.  The first requires you to understand what motivated it.  The second invites action.  Here are some practical tips:

The First Time it Occurs:

1. Ask Questions…and lots of them.  If someone exhibits this behaviour ask them why they feel the way they do.  Try to comprehend what is motivating them and why they feel the way they do.  See if you can identify a particular circumstance or issue that brought this problem to light.  Determine whether there is any justification in their perceptions or beliefs.  If it seems like there may be some merit to what is inferred investigate to corroborate or negate perceptions.

2. Stress uniformity and equitable treatment.  If the situation being raised appears like entitlement emphasize the importance of uniformity and equity in the organization.  Explain to the person exhibiting the behaviour or expressing the comments that they are being treated no differently than others.  Wherever possible, be prepared to provide concrete examples to substantiate your argument.

3. Set clear expectations.  Explain what you believe are the normative standards of behaviour you expect.  Use practical examples to illustrate your point.

4. Stress teamwork.  Emphasize that employees in your organization are part of a team, and that there is no justification or grounds for differential treatment.

For Repeat Occurrences:

If you met with the employee, but the behaviour persists then it is obvious you need to take a stand:

1. Call it what it is.  When I took my coaching training through the College of Executive Coaching in California one of my instructors, Rely Nadler, used to have a saying that always resonated with me.  He used to say when you are confronted with a problem you need to “Name it to tame it”.  If the behaviour resembles entitlement then call for what it is.  Tell the person who demonstrates it the behaviour they are exhibiting, and how unacceptable it is.  

2. Don’t tolerate bad behaviour.  Make it clear what are the expected standards and norms going forward.  Reinforce the importance of teamwork and cooperation.

3. Monitor the situation for improvement.  Watch to see that there are no recurring patterns, comments or behaviours.

4. If things don’t improve be prepared to act decisively.  If a warning doesn’t lead to improvement then you may need to treat the problem with more serious sanctions or discipline.

Entitlement isn’t just a generational norm, but rather, unacceptable workplace behaviour which, if left unchecked, can undermine morale and contribute to organizational disunity. 

A Final Thought:

More than ever today’s workplace is dependent upon cooperation.  The inter-connectedness of business, the proliferation of project management, and the need for collaboration between employees, requires individuals who can cooperate, share and support one another.  Harbouring a discordant influence in the ranks who believes that he/she is owed more, deserving of greater rewards, or should be the recipient of additional praise, esteem, gratitude, visibility or benefits, can undermine your organization’s corporate culture faster than pulling the loose threads on a sweater.

I have long maintained that one of the critical problems in today’s work is the lack of mentors.  Businesses now run “lean and mean”, and they expect employees to “hit the ground running”.  Not surprisingly, too often young employees are thrown into roles without the proper orientation and ongoing guidance.  Leave people to their own devices without providing feedback and direction and it should come as no surprise that the sense of isolation breeds feelings of frustration and a desire for more.

The sense of entitlement is growing, and the longer it festers and goes unchecked the faster it will dissolve the cultural fabric that binds many organizations.  Knowing how to check it requires a combination of courage and patience.