Last week, I served as the token millennial on a panel discussing “The Next Generation of Talent.” I love researching and speaking about this topic because it always gets everyone lathered up. Millennials feel patronized, Gen Xers feel overlooked, and baby boomers are usually incensed about everything the millennials do. (To keep everyone age referenced, millennials were born between 1980 and 1999, Gen Xers between 1965 and 1979, and baby boomers between 1946 and 1964.)
Despite the “generational hysteria” we see just about everywhere, few scientifically-supported generational differences actually exist. Countless studies show that if there are differences, it’s more likely due to life-stage than immutable characteristics of each cohort. For example, a millennial might leave work early not because his generation shuns long hours, but because he has to pick up his toddler from day care.
But based on the endless praise we millennials supposedly received from our parents and teachers, we have been labeled the “Me Generation.” During our panel, multiple audience members indignantly observed that millennials are “overly-entitled narcissists” (a direct quote). One Xer CEO got a loud round of applause for declaring, “Dammit kids, you’re not all good at soccer! You don’t all deserve a ribbon! Some of you actually kind of suck!”
I’d say he struck a nerve.
At work and at home, it’s true that entitlement is the enemy of success. Research confirms that entitled employees have unjustified positive opinions about their talents and contributions, feel deserving of things they haven’t earned, and even see their supervisors as abusive. They’re also less satisfied with their jobs, more likely to underperform, pick fights and behave unethically.
But is there conclusive evidence that millennials are more entitled than other generations at the same age? The research is equivocal at best. Some studies support the argument. One EY study found that 68 percent of millennials are entitled (though they didn’t measure Xers and boomers at the same age). Other research suggests that millennials are no more entitled than previous generations. Still other work indicts Xers for the same problem!
One study analyzed high schoolers’ response to the question “I am an important person” between the 1950s and the 1980s. In the 1950s, only 12 percent agreed; by 1989 (i.e., when the Xers were in high school), that number jumped to roughly 80 percent.
So what does all of this mean? My belief is our world is changing, not just the millennials: our society is increasingly tempting all ages to become entitled narcissists! In my forthcoming book, I call it the Cult of Self.
The causes are exactly what you’d expect: Technology. Television. Social media. But what might be surprising is just how much they’re influencing our behavior. For example, studies have shown that frequent texters are less reflective. People who take selfies have shallower relationships. Watching reality TV is directly related to self-absorption. There’s even evidence that social media use causes narcissism. One study randomly assigned participants to one of two groups: half spent time on their MySpace page (really takes you back, doesn’t it?) and half surfed the Internet. Those who spent time on MySpace showed immediate increases in narcissism!
As much as everyone wants to believe that we don’t worship the Cult of Self, we are all products of our time. I was recently having dinner with my husband at a hot new restaurant. There was a gaggle of young women at the table next to us, all of whom at one point were taking selfies. I was horrified.
“What a bunch of narcissists,” I grumbled. My husband paused for a moment and deadpanned, “That’s an interesting comment coming from someone I caught Googling herself yesterday.” I didn’t even bother justifying my behavior by telling him that I was trying to find an old article I wrote. He had a point.
But there’s hope. Leaders, professionals and even parents can fight the Cult of Self. How Managers Can Banish Entitlement
1. Emphasize warmth over specialness.
There is some intriguing evidence that warmth might be one antidote to entitlement. Researchers asked parents whether they thought their child was special compared to other children. Six months later, they measured the child’s narcissism (with questions like “Kids like me deserve something extra”). The more parents overvalued their children, the more entitled their children behaved. But parents who emphasized warmth over distinctiveness (telling them “I love you” instead of “you’re special”) raised children who were happy with who they are but didn’t feel superior to others.
At work, one might express support and appreciation for your team members (“I’m so thankful for all you do”) over playing to their feelings of uniqueness (“You’re the best junior analyst we’ve ever had on this team”).
2. Set crystal clear expectations.
According to researcher Paul Harvey, another cause of entitlement can be unmet expectations. Leaders (and parents) can combat this through complete transparency about the effort, performance and behaviors they expect. For example, “I expect that you grow your client base by 10 percent in the next three months,” or “When I tell you to clean your room, it means to make your bed and put your clothes in the hamper”.
This leaves less room for creative interpretation of what the standards really are.
3. Make rewards creative and unpredictable.
I once had a client who, two Fridays in a row, decided to reward her team’s hard work with surprise bagels. The third Friday, when she didn’t bring in breakfast, one of her top employees appeared in her office. “Where,” he demanded, “are our bagels?”
Providing predictable rewards can unwittingly breed entitlement. I’m not saying that you should withhold appreciation, but to prevent your team from becoming a bunch of entitled whiners who want a prize just for showing up in the morning, make sure they earn it, and make rewards unpredictable. Our bagel leader could have brought in coffee on a Wednesday and bagels the next Friday. Mix things up for goodness sake!
4. Don’t feed the beast.
Though the jury is still out as to whether managers can increase employee entitlement (I think it can), some research hints that playing into the behavior of entitled people makes the problem much worse. Luckily, not rewarding or even punishing entitled behavior might help them behave more reasonably. Building on the clear expectations you’ve set, for example, you can provide feedback about whether the person is indeed meeting expectations, and create consequences if they’re not.
5. Be prepared to act decisively.
In some cases, leaders who are doing everything listed above may still have an employee who feels superior to others. Here, it’s best to remember the Serenity Prayer: “Grant me the courage to change the things I can, the serenity to accept the things I cannot and the wisdom to know the difference.”
Sometimes the best thing for the leader, the team and even the employee is to help them find a better opportunity. Obviously, this last piece of advice applies only to the workplace. As the saying goes, you can choose your friends (and often your employees) but you can’t choose your family!
Finally, regardless to which generation an entitled employee belongs, when in doubt, remember: Leaders receive the behavior they reward and tolerate. Always.