If you’re a supervisor who manages employees who feel a sense of entitlement—a sense that’s typically associated with the millennial generation—be aware that those employees are more likely to see you as abusive than their more level-headed colleagues.
In a previous post, I wrote about research conducted by Paul Harvey, a University of New Hampshire associate professor of organizational behavior, regarding the impact on the workplace by dysfunctional bosses who bully their employees. Harvey has now released the results of a new study, which found that employees who have a sense of unjustified entitlement are more likely to say that their bosses are abusive and mistreat them, compared to their less entitlement-minded coworkers.
I spoke with Harvey about the new research last week, and I asked him if he could identify the factors that create a sense of entitlement in certain employees. He said it’s behavior that’s learned at a young age:
It seems from outside research that a lot of what contributes to a sense of entitlement appears to take root very early in life—early childhood experiences in school and with parents. That sets the mindset for what are reasonable expectations, and perhaps more importantly, self image and self perception. That why, fairly or unfairly, a lot of the blame goes to these well-intentioned, self esteem-protecting practices that came into play throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s—the every kid gets a trophy kind of thing. It was a mentality of trying to shield kids from failure, to protect them against what had been seen in previous generations, where kids weren’t given a chance to think very highly of themselves, and they’d go into adulthood with a low sense of self. And that had its own set of problems. The consensus is that may have kind of overshot the mark a little bit, by protecting kids from any sort of failure whatsoever. It instills this mentality of ‘if something bad happens, it must not be my fault, if something good happens, it must be because of me.’ Once that’s really locked in to the way a kid thinks, and everything in life goes through that filter, by the time they reach adulthood, it’s very hard to break that. It’s kind of the way their brain has wired itself through their formative years.
It appeared that Harvey was referring to the millennial generation, which is, no doubt, the generation that’s most closely associated with this sense of entitlement. He said that’s certainly a widespread impression, and that there’s some evidence to back that up:
Jean Twenge at [San Diego State] has done fairly comprehensive studies of large swaths of different generations, and has found higher levels of narcissism in the millennial generation. Depending on what kind of narcissism you’re talking about, generally speaking, entitlement is kind of a sub-component of narcissism. It’s somewhat indirect evidence, but it indicates that there does seem to be this phenomenon within that age group. And certainly the anecdotal evidence is everywhere you look.
Harvey said some anecdotal evidence shows that generally non-entitled people may develop a situation-specific sense of entitlement in the workplace if their job somehow replicates some of those early childhood experiences:
There may be those similar kinds of protections from failure in different companies or different industries, where relatively non-entitled people, when that’s all they know of the workplace, they don’t see it as an unrealistic thing. An example would be a high level of job security, or guaranteed across-the-board raises every year regardless of performance, that people in other companies or industries would see as unrealistic to expect. If you’ve always worked in that atmosphere, that guaranteed across-the-board raise becomes something you feel entitled to, even if you’ve done nothing to earn it. So it may be that those people leave their old job, and they’re perfectly level-headed adults, but they unknowingly put on an entitlement hat when they get to a new job.
I asked Harvey if he had any sense of how gender plays into all this, and he said that’s the next step in his research:
Preliminarily, we are seeing some interesting differences. From the employee’s perspective, there is some evidence that male employees have a higher sense of pay entitlement, as opposed to the general type of entitlement we’re talking about. So they typically have a higher expectation of what they’re owed for a given level of effort and performance than a female would have. How much of that translates into an overall sense of psychological entitlement is anyone’s guess. A lot of that almost certainly has to do with societal norms. From the supervisor’s perspective, there’s plenty of evidence out there that shows that male supervisors are generally rated as more abusive than female supervisors. The argument we’re making in our research is that it’s perception—what one person sees as abusive, another person might not. And men may feel more comfortable than women in being aggressive in the workplace, so they may simply engage in more behaviors that are abusive than women do. So it’s probably a little bit of both—a perceptual difference as well as a behavioral difference.
Do managers tend to provide this type of employee with more positive feedback and performance ratings than those employees really deserve, in order to avoid retaliation? Harvey said he has conflicting evidence on that:
On the one hand, one of the things we’ve found is that many managers will say that when things are tough and they’re just trying to get through a bad situation, and they have an employee with a sense of entitlement who doesn’t do what they want him to do, they say the most effective thing they can do is play to his ego. They’ll say they know it’s like feeding a heroin addict, and it just makes the problem worse in the long run, but it gets them through the current bad situation. I have anecdotal accounts of a lot of managers who have owned up to doing that. The conflicting side, and this relates to what’s in the study, is that there does seem to be frustration that results from dealing with someone with a sense of entitlement. That probably does lead to abusive behavior, even if it’s not overt yelling and screaming—there are more subtle types of abuse. That’s part of what we were trying to figure out in that study—to what extent managers get frustrated and take it out on these entitled employees.
So what advice does Harvey have for managers on how to deal with this type of employee so they can avoid being accused of being abusive? He said that’s the million dollar question:
We’ve looked at different communication styles, and we found that what seems to be unusually effective with more entitled employees—and this is based on just a preliminary look at the data—when the manager presents critical feedback to those employees with a united front of several managers or coworkers all in agreement, entitled employees self-report that they respond more favorably to that; they view that as a worthwhile tactic. They say, “If 10 people simultaneously tell me I’m doing something wrong, OK, I’m doing something wrong, and I need to fix it.” So that united front approach to providing corrective feedback, as opposed to one-on-one feedback sessions, does appear to hold some promise.
Finally, Harvey shared his thoughts on what he called a “hot potato” issue:
A lot of states, including New Hampshire, are considering legislation modeled off of the bullying legislation pertaining to schools, to protect employees from abusive supervisors. Like many laws, it’s a very well-intentioned thing, and it’s certainly a real problem—abusive supervision is real. But a key finding of our study is that those with the highest sense of entitlement are more inclined to genuinely believe their supervisors are abusive, compared to more level-headed employees. That same dynamic may hold true for other individual characteristics. It can distort someone’s perception as to what is or isn’t abusive behavior, and perception is reality—in their minds, the abuse is real, even if another employee says, “No, that’s just critical feedback to help you do your job better.” My fear is that these types of laws may provide a legal path for someone who is completely misinterpreting a situation to put his supervisor on the wrong side of a courtroom. That’s always the risk you run with any kind of law like this. To some extent it’s probably a worthwhile tradeoff in a lot of cases, but I just think it’s important in crafting these laws to be very mindful of the fact that what’s abusive to an employee is at least to some degree subjective. Some people are going to see abuse when it’s just not there, and that’s going to have a tremendous cost socially, and particularly for the managers who could find their careers in jeopardy because they told someone he needed to do something better. We need to make sure we don’t rubber-stamp these laws just to make ourselves feel good, because anyone who’s a manager could find himself on the wrong side of this legislation for bad reasons if they have biased employees.