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  • Writer's pictureBrad Federman

Boot Straps: Creating a Culture of Achievement vs. Entitlement

By Brad Federman

Published in HR Professionals Magazine

Pull yourself up by your boot straps!  It sounds good.  But we don’t live or work in a vacuum.  We work in organizations that have systems and cultures that either help or hinder performance, confidence and more. Culture drives everything in an organization.  Some organizations have entitlement cultures and others have achievement cultures.  What is right may be wrong and what is wrong may be right.  What do the culture scales say….

If you are like most people in the workplace, when you hear the word “entitlement” or its variations, it may send a slight shiver up your spine. The word “entitled” is often trailed by other unpleasant words such as “brat” or “attitude.” In a political sense, the word “entitlement” often draws ire from both sides and is seen as either something to covet at all costs or to be minimized. However, one might argue that an entitlement mentality may work in the organization’s favor in some instances.

By contrast, when you hear the word achievement, whether within or outside the workplace, most Americans perk up and feel a sense of accomplishment. They want to work hard and strive for better. Historically, the United States is an achievement-based culture – and in particular, an individualistic (vs. team-based) achievement culture. While most people love a good steak, overcooking will ruin it. Similar to a steak, an achievement culture can be overdone and destroy an organizational culture. Either too little or too much focus on entitlement or achievement can lead to unintended consequences and results. Let’s see how it might play out in the workplace.

An Entitlement Culture

Organizations such as Zappos and Google receive praise for giving their employees generous, flexible and innovative benefits including free meals, dry cleaning, onsite gyms, unlimited vacation/sick time, bring your pet to work and more. These organizations often attract the best and the brightest – those who have significantly achieved in their education or careers and therefore are looking (and may feel somewhat entitled) to join organizations where they can reach more of their professional goals. Some potential positive benefits of the entitlement mentality:

Entitled people feel a stronger drive for achievement; after all, if you feel like you deserve to be the top salesperson in your organization, you’re going to work harder to make that title a reality. (Forbes)You might hold out for a job that better suits your talents and expertise, rather than take one with responsibilities that are beneath you, and you’ll work harder and more productively as a result. (Forbes)Higher creativity, according to Journal for Experimental Psychology: “Our results suggest that people who feel more entitled value being different from others, and the greater their need for uniqueness, the more they break convention, think divergently and give creative responses.” (Vincent, 2014)

According to a study from the University of New Hampshire, millennials born between 1988 and 1994 scored 25 percent higher in entitlement-related issues than their 40-60 year-old counterparts, and 50 percent higher than those over 60. The score was calculated using a survey comprised of several questions meant to reveal attitudes of entitlement, such as asking whether participants felt they deserved certain things or asking how superior they felt to others.

Often, if things have been going well at an organization for a long time with perks and excellent benefits, employees sometimes forget that what they have may not be comparable to what the average working person experiences.

Reducing Entitlement

An opportunity may arise to remind or level-set the entitlement mentality in several ways. One way to reduce entitlement is to make the entitled person feel similarly situated to the other employees. Research shows that feeling different from, or better than, others is a crucial component of entitlement. Another method to reduce entitlement is to play to entitled employees’ strengths. Usually, entitled individuals are wildly successful at brainstorming tasks because they think differently, creatively and don’t shy away from thinking outside the box. Finally, resetting expectations may be the key to reducing entitlement. Sometimes all that is needed is a small shift in perspective to be reminded of how good an employee has it. There will always be a friend or family member who thinks your job is incredible and seeing it through fresh eyes can be invaluable to level-set. While a culture of entitlement is probably one that most organizations do not want to cultivate, like anything else, there are pros and cons.

Creating a Culture of Achievement

Many organizations are creating a culture of achievement through pay for performance mentalities, as well as reward and recognition programs geared towards both individual and team performance. American culture tends to praise, emulate and promote those who are capable of hitting their goals. Organizations that have an achievement-based culture have a lot of success. An achievement culture emphasizes the setting and accomplishment of challenging yet realistic goals that improve performance (HR Success, Australia).  Many organizations have some type of MBO (management by objectives) system in place that allows for cascading goals and goal setting at every level which can drive an achievement culture via performance management. In this example, organizations use the best tools and methods for producing results, and when a goal is met, everyone quickly moves on to another. Because of this environment and mindset, achievement cultures tend to be highly adaptive (Jason Martin, 2006).  For those companies that reported having achievement cultures:

Organizations: 32% more adaptable to changes in the external environment and 32% higher quality performanceTeams: 28% more effective teamwork and 25% greater commitment to producing a quality resultIndividuals: 32% more motivated, 26% more satisfied and 25% more likely to stay with the organizations. (HR Success, Australia)

Additionally, achievement cultures foster a sense of ownership and an earned responsibility, which is the antithesis of entitlement. Rules and procedures may interfere with the accomplishment of work, and as a result, are limited. Rules are often ignored if it gets in the way of achieving a goal. (Jason Martin, 2006).

Pitfalls of an Achievement Culture

When achievement cultures are not implemented or appropriately nurtured, issues will occur. Many times those who thrive in achievement cultures sometimes report feeling lost or empty when they suddenly hit a rare unforeseen obstacle. (Quartz)

When achievements become the primary driver, individuals can place too much focus on the tangibles: (money, status, hierarchy). Unfortunately, members of an achievement culture tend to burn out. It may be difficult to establish control if the need arises as the culture cultivates individuals. Teammates may become highly competitive with each other and the mindset of “whatever it takes” can lead to dishonest and illegal behavior. (Jason Martin, 2006)

The Bottom-Line

To most, the entitlement culture and achievement culture clash and can both can have ill effects if not implemented properly. In and of itself, there are pros and cons to both as we have discussed above. However, the real advantage is to view them differently.  We see both cultures in extremes. The opportunity is to recognize the strengths of both by seeing them in a more moderate fashion.

When it comes to entitlement the problem occurs when it increases narcissism and reduces respect and empathy for others. While a sense of individuality is important, that must also become part of the group; part of something bigger that appreciates a healthy approach to norms. After all, an organization cannot sustain itself on a “me” mentality that holds double standards. However, a healthy dose of “I deserve to be here” and treated with respect is good. Everyone’s individual genius should be valued. It creates confidence and the ability to take educated risks.

Ultimately moderation provides for the best of both worlds; a culture that breeds creativity, confidence, a connection to something bigger than oneself and a drive to strengthen the company and oneself.

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