Most business founders have vivid recollections of the long years of struggle and sacrifice it took to build their company. They remember the financial risks, the time away from family, and the dark uncertainties that surround starting and growing a business. These memories can be a double-edged sword when it comes to dealing with employees.
At the onset of a business, we are in control and make all the decisions. Once we have employees, we often resist allowing them to make positive contributions to the company by taking ownership of their jobs. This is understandable, as many of the first people we employ aren’t really equipped to handle these responsibilities. As a result, they often fail in their attempts to do so, reinforcing our belief in our need to control things.
There is a learning curve involved in creating a culture of empowerment. This is frequently the result of years of experience — long, often painful, trial-and-error experience — where we engage in a delicate dance between hiring the right people who will facilitate our growth as a business leader and growing enough professionally that we attract the right people to reinforce our growth. On the other hand, we may find ourselves going overboard in the opposite direction. As a friend of mine likes to remind me, many business owners are nice people who got lucky, and we want others to like us. So, in our desire to win our employees’ affection, or to spare them the pain we experienced when starting the company, or maybe in a misguided attempt to hold onto them, we may unintentionally create a workplace that promotes a sense of entitlement in our people; one that we then resent and complain about!
The struggle between cultures of empowerment and entitlement exists in companies of all sizes. And if left unchecked, it will continue as a company grows. Understanding the empowerment vs. entitlement dichotomy is a result of our professional maturing as a business leader, heavily influenced by experience and time.
Characteristics that typically manifest themselves in empowered employees are a sense of confidence in the value they possess as human beings and bring to the organization. They are good listeners and show a genuine interest in others. They form strong interdependent relationships with people throughout the organization.
Entitled employees, on the other hand, show little interest in others beyond what they can gain from the relationship. They exhibit more of a “what’s-in-it-for-me” attitude than a “what’s-in-it-for-us” mindset. They typically possess a scarcity mentality. Keep in mind that while these behaviors may reside within individuals or groups of individuals in an organization, the responsibility for creating a culture that encourages them or allows them to continue rests squarely on the shoulders of the company’s leadership. And in small businesses, despite all our complaining to the contrary, that usually means the owner.
In the next part of this series, we’ll explore some of the consequences an organization can experience as a result of these behaviors. Then the final installment will wrap up the series with suggestions on how to avoid a culture of entitlement and build an empowered one instead.