I received an email advertising  a workshop for managers, titled “Overcoming a Culture of Entitlement,”  last week.

Here’s the hook:

“When employees feel “entitled,” they resist change, they drag their feet, they’re not accountable, and leaders are constantly frustrated.”

Who are these leaders that are constantly frustrated?  Might they be the same ones who had a part in creating the entitlement culture they want to overcome?

To understand how people come to feel entitled, let’s look at the definition (from Merriam-Webster online):

en·ti·tle·ment Pronunciation: \-ˈtī-təl-mənt\ Function: noun

1 a : the state or condition of being entitled : right b : a right to benefits specified especially by law or contract

Employment agreements usually specify such things as vacation days, sick days, salary.  People are entitled to those by explicit contract.

I recently met a woman who was having trouble performing her job. Her desk and desktop computer were right by the window. At certain times of day, there was so much glare on her computer screen that she couldn’t do her job.  Further,  she suffered from light induced migraines.  Between the glare and a debilitating head ache, she struggling to do her job.

Under company policy, she was entitled to an ergonomic consultation to assess her office set up.  If she had a medical statement about her migraines, she would also be entitled by law to reasonable accommodation in the workplace.  That might include drawing the blinds or moving her to a different workstation.

(Her manager denied her request to close the blinds—and implied that she was selfish to want to draw the blinds when no one else was bothered by the sunlight.  The manager warned the other employees, “don’t you dare close those blinds.” Absolutely astonishing!)

But there are other types of contracts.

If company has given out a Christmas turkey for 25 years, people come to expect that this year at Christmas, they will receive a turkey.

If people observe that programmers are promoted from junior developer to senior developer on the 2nd anniversary of employment–like clockwork–they’ll come to expect it.

People come to expect certain patterns of behavior because they’ve experienced them over time.  Reliable, repeated behavior creates an implicit social contract.  When one party to the contract withdraws without notice or explanation, the other party wonders what happened, and may feel disappointed, angry, or mistreated.

2 : a government program providing benefits to members of a specified group; also : funds supporting or distributed by such a program

If an employee looses his job through no fault of his own—due to layoffs, or a position being eliminated—he is eligible for unemployment insurance. Most people who lose their jobs (even if they have been fired) believe they are not at fault, and are therefore entitled to unemployment insurance.

3 : belief that one is deserving of or entitled to certain privileges

Sometimes people generalize a social contract in one context to apply in others.  This happens most often when people experience a pattern of behavior from the time they are small children.

Kids who receive every toy, candy, item of clothing, pool party, trip to the amusement park and all else they ask for tend to develop a belief that they are entitled to everything they desire. Children who are protected from the consequences of their behavior come to believe that they can do what ever they want with impunity.

Personally, I’d try to find out about this mindset in the interview process.  It come under the heading of “maturity.”

A culture of entitlement is about patterns of interaction between managers and employees over time.

Few people get to feel entitled all on their own.

I suspect that the “frustrated leaders” mentioned in the email are dealing with the first type of entitlement, the sort that comes about when there is an implicit contract.  But they are responding to the situations as if it were the 3rd type of entitlement—employees believe they deserve privileges.

When there is a “culture of entitlement” it is that way because it got that way.  And it got that way because of the interactions between employees and managers as managers carry out (stated and unstated) company policies.

These “frustrated leaders” can change the dynamic–because they are part of the pattern.

They can do that in way that ignores their contribution to the situation and blames employees—forcing, cajoling, threatening, and manipulating them—as advised in the email.

The alternative is to own up to the part manager’s actions played, treat employees like adults, talk frankly about the situation, and renegotiate the social contract.