Prima Donnas Create Conflict

By Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR May 26, 2009
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Employees who act like prima donnas or who feel entitled to undeserved preferential treatment are more likely than others to get into workplace conflicts, according to new research from the University of New Hampshire. And the number of entitlement-minded workers is on the rise, experts say.

According to Paul Harvey, assistant professor of management at the University of New Hampshire, and Mark Martinko at Florida State University, people who feel entitled to preferential treatment more often than not exhibit self-serving attributional styles—the tendency to take credit for good outcomes and to blame others when things go wrong.

Such people tend to be less happy in their jobs and more apt to create conflict in the workplace, especially with their supervisors.

Harvey and Martinko surveyed full-time employees at different U.S.-based companies, in different jobs, and different age groups in order to get a generalized view of how entitlement affects employees, their co-workers and managers.

The results appeared in the May 2009 issue of the Journal of Organizational Behavior in the article “An empirical examination of the role of attributions in psychological entitlement and its outcomes.”

It’s usually pretty easy to identify such workers, Harvey told SHRM Online. “Entitled employees tend to experience a lot of unmet expectations when they’re not rewarded and praised the way they think they should be,” he said. “As a result they tend to complain more than others and provoke higher levels of conflict than other employees.

“They also tend to reject or at least question any negative feedback, so that is another red flag,” he continued. “More broadly, if an employee seems to think very highly of himself without actually possessing any special talents or abilities, you’re probably dealing with an entitled person.”

Harvey suggests employers pose the following question to prospective hires: Do you feel you are generally superior to your co-workers or classmates, and if so, why?

“If the candidate answers ‘yes’ to the first part of the question but struggles with the ‘why,’ there may be an entitlement issue,” Harvey says. “This is because entitlement perceptions are often based on an unfounded sense of superiority and deservingness. They’ve been led to believe, perhaps through overzealous self-esteem-building exercises in their youth, that they are somehow special but often lack any real justification for this belief,” he adds.

Harvey says young workers, known as Generation Y, are more apt to feel entitled.

Managers have reported a lot of problems associated with this age group, he says, noting that many of these employees have unrealistic expectations and a strong resistance toward accepting negative feedback. “Entitlement involves having an inflated view of oneself, and managers are finding that younger employees are often very resistant to anything that doesn’t involve praise and rewards,” he says.

In the 1980s approximately one out of seven college students scored high on a narcissism scale, according to Jean M. Twenge, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at San Diego State University and author of The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement (Free Press, 2009) and Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled – And More Miserable Than Ever Before (Free Press, 2006). Now, one out of four college students can be considered narcissistic.

Twenge says there are four major causes of the growing incidence of narcissistic behavior:

  • Parenting, education and sports. “The problem is that the way parents and teachers and media teach self-esteem often crosses into narcissism,” Twenge told SHRM Online. “Getting a trophy for showing up doesn’t build self-esteem; it gives you the idea that you are fantastic for doing nothing.”
  • The Internet. Once online, individuals have the ability to create their own image, whether fictional or true. “Narcissists thrive on Facebook, have more Facebook friends and post more attractive pictures of themselves,” Twenge says. “It’s all about self-promotion, looking hot, having the right friends and looking cool.”
  • Celebrity culture and media. “It’s now possible to hire fake paparazzi to follow you around and pretend you are famous,” she says.
  • Easy credit.With credit cards readily available it’s possible to “look better off than you actually are,” Twenge adds.

“People who are narcissist are very good at self-promotion; they are very charming; they are good at taking charge and being leaders—all good qualities in the short term,” Twenge says. But in the long term they don’t get along with others well.

“People who are entitled have a hard time taking someone else’s perspective and think they should get something for nothing,” Twenge says. This can result in damaged working relationships and a lot of complaining. For example, managers complain about the reduced work ethic and employees demand more perks.

A Bigger Issue

But young people aren’t the only ones likely to exhibit entitlement behavior and narcissism. Some of the United States' most successful companies are run by narcissists, according to a 2006 article in Psychology Today.

Harvey says there might be a link between narcissistic mentality and recent corporate scandals. “A great source of frustration for people with a strong sense of entitlement is unmet expectations,” he says. “They often feel entitled to a level of respect and rewards that aren’t in line with their actual ability and effort levels.

If such employees don’t get the level of respect and rewards they are expecting, they might feel cheated and might try to obtain rewards they feel they are entitled to through unconventional, unethical means, Harvey says, such as manipulating performance data to achieve higher bonuses.

How to Handle Entitlement

Microsoft’s Small Business Center online offers five ways to manage such employees:

  • Feed the need. Be ready to invest the individual time and attention that will yield the business benefits you want.
  • Find the key.Look for what makes such employees tick, and condition rewards on respect for co-workers and on acceptance of rules and policies you set.
  • Build fences. Corral a prima donna by assigning him to a project that can be completed in isolation or making him work with a team than can help herd him in the right direction.
  • Check the heart.Arrogance is one thing. Working against the business is quite another. Does the prima donna want the organization to succeed?
  • Make them accountable.There's no room for high performers with faulty ethics or a disregard for policies central to the company's mission.

“Our ultimate goal is to find answers to the question of how to manage with these employees,” Harvey says.

“If you are a manager and you are running into this problem, it might be helpful to document performance in a more detailed manner than you might ordinarily find necessary. This can be helpful when employees attempt to avoid blame for negative outcomes or claim credit for positive outcomes that others contributed to.”

Harvey suggests that supervisors remove as much ambiguity from situations as possible so that employees are less apt to form biased judgments. To the extent possible, document who does what so that credit and blame can be determined accurately. Make sure that everyone understands the organizational structure so employees understand who is responsible for what.

Twenge says every young person must face reality eventually. Employers can help this process along by assigning young employees a mentor who is a few years older.

“Spell things out really clearly,” she adds. “Not just expectations but also why they are that way.”

And when such employees perform well, they should be praised—in moderation, Twenge adds.

“In dealing with younger employees who exhibit these traits, we suggest taking advantage of the fact that they are accustomed to very high levels of feedback,” Harvey says. “Unlike many older workers, they seem to enjoy and expect frequent updates about their progress,” he says. This gives managers the opportunity to present negative feedback in bite-sized pieces they might be more willing to accept.

“Try not to be intimidated by the anticipated negative reaction from an entitled employee,” Harvey cautions. “It’s that reluctance to give negative feedback in order to avoid conflict that helps to perpetuate a sense of entitlement.

“In the end you’re not really doing yourself or the employee any favors by letting them think they’re better than they are,” Harvey says. “While telling them the truth can be unpleasant in the short run, it might also help them break free of their unrealistic self-image and help them to focus more on becoming a valuable employee.”

Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Related Articles

The Multigenerational Workforce: Opportunity for Competitive Success, SHRM Research Quarterly, First Quarter 2009

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