Is your team Entitled or Empowered?

One of the big challenges to being an entrepreneur / business owner is that the scope of what you worry about quickly expands to include everything in your business ecosystem – your employees, your customers, even the vendors that you work with. You do your level best to balance the needs of everyone against what you are trying to achieve as the business owner.

Contrast that with an entitlement mentality that’s often found in employees. Here’s the concept as described by Judith Bardwick in her book Danger In the Comfort Zone (written back in 1991 if you can imagine).

“Entitlement is an attitude, a way of looking at life. Those who have this attitude believe they do not have to earn what they get. They get what they want because of who they are, not because of what they do. … Entitlement destroys motivation. It lowers productivity. In the long run, it crushes self-esteem.”


It’s not hard to find examples where entitlement has become a significant part (and problem) of how we live:

  • Kids getting ‘participation’ medals and ribbons, not keeping scores in games
  • The ‘right’ to a well paying job (see Seattle and other cities mandating a $15/hour minimum wage)
  • The ‘right’ to a good college education, health care, etc.
  • The ‘right’ of every family to have a nice home, great car, big screen, smart phone, etc.

Note – there’s a difference between the right to strive for the best things in life and the right to just have the best things in life without earning them.


When an entitlement mentality is enabled or encouraged (consciously or unconsciously), employee productivity and engagement drop substantially. If employees aren’t held accountable for results, results are not achieved, which ultimately impacts the bottom line in a big way.


According to author Daniel Prosser in his book Thirteeners, an entitlement mentality is often created and driven by leadership and managers who are afraid of loss – they don’t want to lose a client, they don’t want to lose employees and they don’t want to lose out on opportunities. That mentality causes them to overcompensate by giving employees extra perks or overlooking behavioral infractions (someone consistently coming in late, taking long lunches, missing deadlines, etc.).  Once this example is out in the workforce, the employees start to believe that they deserve these extras – they believe they are more important than the business as a whole.


And although this entitlement concept starts small, it begins to fray at the integrity of the business and it directly counteracts against personal accountability.  The attitude becomes ‘the business (and the owner) owe me and therefore I don’t have to follow all the rules or take ownership of my work’.


There is an alternative to Entitlement!

Given the opportunity, most people prefer to earn their achievements if possible. They want to be empowered. That means they have the clarity to know what needs to be done, the ability and the right tools to do the work and a clear definition of a successful outcome. They need to be able to see that their contributions directly impact the bigger picture (and they’re not just wasting time).  This kind of culture can be developed into any kind of company.

Here are 3 ideas that can help mitigate the problem of entitlement and lead to empowerment.


1.  Set the right example as the leader…

This seems pretty obvious, but it’s amazing how often the problem really starts (and stops) here.  If the business ownership or leadership isn’t consistently demonstrating the right actions and attitudes, then the employees will never get there (and the good ones will leave). Here are just a few of the key things you must do to be an effective leader:

  • Say what you mean and mean what you say – to put it another way, always follow through on what you say you’re going to do.
  • Be transparent and vulnerable. If you screwed up, you need to say that and take ownership of it.
  • Listen, be attentive and actually care about what your team has to say.


2.  Create a winning culture

In his book The Culture Code, author Daniel Coyle does a great job of streamlining the behaviors that a great culture must have:

  • Build safety – create an environment where people feel like they belong and can open up and truly engage
  • Share vulnerability – great cultures require trust and that happens when people can be vulnerable and have positive things come out of it.  The team must see the leader admitting to mistakes and taking ownership of fixing them (see point #1)… and then do the same for themselves.
  • Establish purpose – the team has to understand the big picture of what the group is trying to achieve and how they fit into that picture (how do they make an impact) and they need to understand how they’ll be measured for successful outcomes.


3.  Hold everyone to high standards of performance

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there must be an understanding that everyone is expected to perform at a high level.  And that’s not just a top down accountability, it should be bottom-up and peer-to-peer.  It should be clear what everyone on the team is accountable for (what do they own), the team members must have the leeway to do what needs to be done and there should be clear, easy ways to measure how everyone is doing against the targets.

And… to tie all of this together, if someone is not performing – the leader needs to let them know, give them a brief opportunity to fix the performance issue and if that doesn’t work, they need to be let go.  Far too many companies and leaders aren’t willing to confront mediocre or even poor performers – which sends the message that performance doesn’t really matter.


What do you think about entitlement?  Have you seen any examples of it in your company?  Do you have the kind of culture that makes it unlikely? If not, what are you doing about it?

We’d love to hear your thoughts – leave us a comment below.


Shawn Kinkade   Kansas City Business Coach