5 Ways Entitlement Can Take Down a Team

UPDATED: December 19, 2017
PUBLISHED: December 19, 2017

Few leaders would admit to a favorable view of entitlement. In fact, most will express strong negative views about it publicly. But behind the scenes, many managers unwittingly tolerate or even allow themselves to be held hostage by entitled employees.

Related: 11 Types of Ineffective Leaders

Entitlement is the belief that a person has a right to special treatment, whether or not he or she actually earned it. It can come from a variety of sources: parenting, financial status, popular culture, proven performance… the list goes on. We often hear that entitlement is especially prevalent with millennials, but the truth is that entitlement stretches across generations, and it’s not limited to one demographic.

There are a number of reasons that entitlement runs rampant at work. And many of them are permitted—or even endorsed—by leaders. Here are a few signs that you’re letting entitlement infiltrate your team:

You dole out raises via threat.

Many managers have been in this situation: You have a key employee with loads of institutional knowledge whose leaving would cause major disruption, annoyance and even pain. The employee knows it, and uses this loaded bargaining chip as an excuse to threaten to leave or ask for an undeserved increase in salary. To avoid losing this employee, and maybe for fear of what might happen if you do, managers instead throw money at them as a preventative measure to keep them. As a result, you have somebody with average performance who feels even more entitled because they are getting paid for their behavior.

You allow different employees to play by different rules.

One of my clients has a project manager with excellent skills who works efficiently, on time and on budget. He has good relationships with his customers, and yet his internal behavior is awful. He doesn’t complete paperwork, is lazy about procedures, and generally thinks that office policies and practices don’t apply to him. And since he’s a strong performer and gets the job done, the boss lets him get away with it, even going so far as to ask co-workers to fill in the gaps and complete work for him.

Related: 15 Trust-Building Practices for Leaders

You have obvious favorites.

Another CEO I worked with had a favorite employee whom he had personally hired and brought up through the ranks. She was prematurely in a position she wasn’t prepared for, yet was protected by the CEO and therefore “untouchable” by her immediate managers. You are only stroking an employee’s sense of entitlement when you play favorites based on job performance, personality traits or common interests. Whether you give additional time off, extra privileges, flexible schedules or even more money to one employee over others, know that the rest of your team sees it, and your authority and trustworthiness will be diminished.

No matter the source, entitlement damages relationships and teams. Here are five ways that employee entitlement may be disrupting your organization:

1. It breaks down the team dynamic.

When employees act entitled, they are no longer team players. They are instead focused on themselves, their own desires and their own results as opposed to those of the team. When even one person on a team is in it just for themselves, the team cannot function optimally.

2. It causes distrust and resentment.

One of the first emotions that entitlement elicits from other team members is resentment, which builds and festers. When one employee receives undeserved favor, the lack of equal treatment across the board also breeds distrust—not only in the entitled employee, but also in management who is doing nothing about it. And when distrust and resentment exist in a work environment, it is much easier to jump to conflict.

3. It produces copycats.

When other employees see their entitled team members getting special treatment, they may start to copy bad behavior. If the best employee at the company doesn’t have to complete paperwork or follow rules, why should I? Your aspiring employees can even begin to believe that a flippant attitude and inflated sense of self-confidence is what they need to get to the next level.

4. It damages communication.

In entitlement situations, employees are reluctant to speak up because they don’t want it to seem as if they are complaining. Even worse, when they do talk about the situations, it’s not to the manager, but instead to their sympathetic co-workers. This secret communication incites office gossip and spreads an overall sense of discontent—in many cases about more than just the entitled employee.

5. It infuriates managers.

Managers don’t like to be backed into a corner, and entitlement often does just that. Dealing with entitlement on top of the actual work product makes a leader’s job more complicated. While solid work might force managers to give perks, entitlement will generally block promotion options and ultimately be limiting to a person’s career. If the manager has the opportunity to get out from under the entitled employee, he or she will always take it—and an entitled reputation will follow a person to the next job.

Taking steps to check entitlement at the door—and to correct the damage done by it—isn’t easy, but it’s necessary in order to have healthy teams and optimal organizations. Establish a zero tolerance policy and make sure that you and your managers eliminate any emerging entitlement before it takes root. If you consistently cut it off if when it appears, you’ll create the foundation for an entitlement-free workplace.

Related: 5 Things Strong Leaders Do

Lisa Aldisert

Dr. Lisa M. Aldisert is a speaker, author and business adviser based in New York City. She is the president of Pharos Alliance. Her latest book is Leadership Reflections: 52 Leadership Practices in the Age of Worry.