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Not a week goes by without a leader complaining about managing staff who believe they are owed a raise, promotion or other plum rewards. They throw up their hands and tell me, “I can’t believe the audacity of this person who has been in her role for all of 2 minutes and with the company for less than 2 years telling me that she expects a promotion by the end of the year. She is not asking me, she is telling me. There are no threats of leaving. Just a statement of fact. What the hell is going on here and how do I handle this?”

The rest of my client’s plea is peppered with a list of other questions: paying dues, performance, achievements, actual available opportunities, tenure….do any of these things still matter in the workplace? Oddly, my experience does not neatly fall into generational groups. Thirty something managers are as distressed about this as are the 50 somethings. And a sense of entitlement does not have an expiration date.

There are many good explanations available about why this is happening among the Millennials. Here is a fine summary by Marcus Buckingham:

So that is the back story about how we got here but I want to address what to do. First, some guidance for leaders…

  1. Get informed. Read about and speak with Gen Y’s (and X) to understand their realities. Develop an appreciation for how they see the world. Their experiences growing up are probably different than yours. Just like your era is legitimate, so is theirs. Stop being so flabbergasted at their remarks and habits. (So similar to what I said to my parents and bosses in my hippie days!)
  2. Find your voice. You may need to find a unique way of speaking with these folks. Just like you adjust your style if you are sitting in front of a very detail oriented person, you need to discover how to be effective with this type of person. A neutral tone, facts about the current context and an even handed assessment of the person’s performance. “I appreciate your ambition to excel here and I think that will happen for you. Let me remind you of how performance is evaluated here and how promotions occur….So as much as you may feel ready for more I think you still need to demonstrate a,b,c before we enter a more detailed discussion about your next assignment.”
  3. Find a balance. Between catering to their needs (constant feedback, immediate action, high praise for effort) and solid management practices. In the real world leaders need to be careful not to show favoritism, not to leap over other talented people who have been more patiently waiting their turn or be manipulated by anyone’s persistence. You still need to look at the big picture of the larger talent pool, real opportunities and how this person is being received by the organization writ large. You need to be the bridge. (PS. this is true when you are managing anyone who is unrealistically ambitious. It’s not just about Gen Y’s)
  4. Embrace the truly talented. Don’t over generalize about an entire generation of people. There are people who may sound entitled in their conversations with you who are vital to the future of the business. Yes, they may be arrogant. Yes, they may skip over corporate protocols. But they may have special skills and insights that you must retain. If you can ignore the noise and fairly assess the person’s value to the business then you need to do everything you can to position this person for continued success. You will probably need to engage other colleagues or HR in your discussions. Throw aside the usual processes to keep this person.
  5. Let some go. Sometimes people just don’t have a good grasp of reality. They believe they have achieved when they have not. They think they are director material when they are not. They think the company will suffer then they leave. The gaps between their self importance and the assessment of others is just too great. Obviously in these cases you encourage them to find another place that can appreciate them in the ways they hope for.

Now a few words to those of you who feel entitled…and you know who you are.

  1. “Entitlement” is unappealing. You need to understand that your behaviors have slapped you with this label: entitled. I don’t know about you but I haven’t heard any stories that go like this. Gen Y says, “Even though we talked about this 2 months ago I would like to discuss my next promotion. I’ve been here for 6 months now and I think I’ve shown what I bring to the table. When I signed on here I was led to believe that I would steadily move up. So I assume you’ve already identified my next assignment.” The manager says, “Absolutely. You’ve clearly mastered your current role in a very short time and must be getting bored. Even though I don’t have new projects for the rest of the team I am making an exception in your case. So here is the plan…” Please understand that when you frame things as “what will you do for me next” it is heard as self centered and not pinned to achievement or the surrounding context. Even if you are brilliant you run the risk of being marginalized because your behavior comes across as petulant.
  2. Understand your environment. You walked into a company that has lots of norms in place (unless its a start up). Observe what those are and try to appreciate the rationale behind them. Not all of them will make sense and some of them are horribly outdated or counterproductive for the business. Learn how others (especially those that you admire the most) ascended. Find a mentor who can provide insights and guidance about how to navigate the system. All work places are imperfect and do need to make some changes. But if you disregard the prevailing norms you will have a tough time succeeding…let alone excelling.
  3. Find a balance. Just like your managers need to find a common ground where they can meet you, you also need to make that effort. Once there is some rapport built you can experiment with pushing the boundaries or testing the system. But you have to play both sides…sometimes you go along with the herd and other times you stick your neck out. Be flexible and pick your battles.
  4. Think of others. Your generation is especially tuned into the community so this should be an easy one for you. The moment you push to get your own needs met without comprehending if/how this might step on others, you will lose credibility all around. You will lose the trust of your peer group and managers will be turned off. Too much of work these days can only be achieved through collective efforts and folks who are not good team players will get weeded out.
  5. Find a well placed advocate. With most companies populated with a generational mix and older people in the most senior roles it is possible that your unique (sic. digital, connected, agile) capabilities will be received with mixed feelings. On the one hand all companies understand they will wither away without the Millennial know-how and heavily recruit for this. On the other hand some older executives feel incompetent when it comes to all these new doo-dads. (A recent study reported that only 1/3 of all US CEOs are active on social media and those that are have better business outcomes.) So find the senior folks who DO get it (PS. not at all age dependent!) and form a close relationship to ones who will advocate for your smarts and contributions to the future of the business. Join forces to do the right thing for the business…which will undoubtedly include you.

Can we all agree to drop the labels? Entitled is so negative…either in words or deeds. Leaders, stop pulling rank and telling stories about “how it is done around here”. And you younger folks, put the trophies away!  No one cares about those in the real world.

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