Retail’s Sense Of Entitlement – The Enemy Of Success

Retail’s Sense Of Entitlement – The Enemy Of Success

I have had the privilege of working for five retail organizations in the past 18-24 months  – as a consultant – in both short and long term capacities. The retail organizations have been very different in terms of products and/or services offered and processes used that define their business, but one thing is very much the same throughout each retail organization and it is very much compromising the health and outlook of far too many retail companies. Sense of entitlement…and it’s BAD! Over the past two to three months I have had a lot of lively and memorable debates with friends and colleagues about this really critical issue that we are facing. The debates have never centered around whether or not there is a crippling sense of entitlement inside the retail workplace – everyone agrees that there is – but the “whom” and “how far” the sense of entitlement extends has been widely debated.

Millennials Are The WORST [Or Are They?!]

Unlike most of my friends and colleagues I absolutely don’t believe it is the millennial generation [for context, “Millennials” were born between 1980 and 1999, “Gen X’ers” between 1965 and 1979, and “Baby Boomers” between 1946 and 1964] who has a corner on the “sense of entitlement” market. I am a “Gen X’er” and started working when I was 17 and sense of entitlement has always been a very salient reality in retail. Most of my friends and colleagues are of my same generation but work in different industries and I always enjoy hearing their perspective on topics like this. Some of my friends are millennials and the ones I know personally are trustworthy, reliable, and incredibly driven.

Once a month I invite a few of my friends and acquaintances over for cocktails and dinner. As the only person who works in retail, I was sharing two stories about a project I recently worked on with a retail organization and how stunned I was at the consistent and unreasonable sense of entitlement possessed by the low-wage, low-skill worker that they typically hire all the way up to the CEO level of the organization.  These stories inspired a very lively and robust dialog around the issue of entitlement and sharing of very interesting stories from the others as well. The ONLY things we agreed on were that (1) we [society] assign a blanket “generational hysteria” to millennials, (2) that there are very few scientifically-supported generational differences that truly exist, and (3) that “excessive entitlement” does not exist in all industries. As a matter of fact – there are countless studies that show that if there are differences, it’s more likely associated with an individual than immuatable characteristics of an assigned generation.

There Are Varieties of “Entitlement”

After this conversation, I became obsessed with finding out more about this topic. What I discovered – contrary to what I believed to be the case – is that there are different types of entitlements.

  • Entitlement – The word itself and idea of entitlement isn’t negative at all, “belief that one is deserving of or entitled to certain privileges” – oftentimes it is actually the catalyst for greatness – “if I put forth this effort, I can earn this reward” and remarkable people do.
  • Exploitative/Narcissistic Entitlement – This characterized by exploitative interactions and expectations of special treatment. Exploitative entitlement is uniquely related to higher levels of psychopathy and neuroticism, and lower levels of work orientation, social commitment, and self-esteem.
  • Non-exploitative Entitlement – There are entitled beliefs that rest on notions of self-worth and fairness. This type of person was uniquely associated with higher self-esteem.
  • Excessive Entitlement – These individuals are increasingly subscribing to the belief that they should get exactly what they want, when they want – oftentimes without regard for the well-being of others. While the antecedents of this rise in feelings of personal deservingness are difficult to pinpoint, several factors have been proposed, including a general increase in the standard of living, proliferation of technology and the “instant gratification” such advancements often bring. These employees frequently and consistently display counterproductive work behaviors, such as: low productivity; wasting resources; sabotaging property, policy, and/or procedure; and political deviance [gossiping, lying, and/or assigning blame].
  • Psychological Entitlement  – This is a relatively stable tendency toward inflated self-perceptions and unrealistic expectations concerning praise and rewards.

Research confirms that entitled employees have unjustified positive opinions about their talents and contributions, feel deserving of things they haven’t earned, and even identify their supervisors as abusive. According to a study conducted by Glenda M. Fisk, they’re also less satisfied with their jobs, more likely to under-perform, pick fights/bully, and behave unethically.

Ms. Fisk outlines in this study, “In organizational settings, one might argue that excessive entitlement has contributed to the rise of ‘Idiosyncratic-Deals’ and employees bargaining for themselves . Whereas philosophies espousing the value of hard work and deriving meaning from contributing inputs define traditional work values, some suggest today’s society possesses an excessive sense of entitlement that lead many to want the best without working to make such aspirations a reality. Consistent with this view, one business consultant suggests excessively entitled employees are less likely to go above and beyond – a stance that ultimately erodes performance-oriented organizational cultures. Requesting a salary increase despite poor or marginal performance, demanding perks for completing the most basic of job tasks, and seeking a payout after being terminated have been offered as just a few examples of how excessively entitled employees could be expected to behave on the job.”

How WE Create A Culture of Excessive Entitlement

In the past two years I have worked with two separate retail organizations that used longevity as their primary measure for promotability. What this lead to – in both organizations – was a toxic culture that was incapable of capturing and retaining truly high-potential and high-productivity talent. These legitimately great employees were targeted by the excessively entitled and made a constant source of gossip. Stronger employees were not afforded fair growth opportunity because there was a louder person who was extremely vocal about “being next” for promotion.  These practices were silently endorsed by mid-, senior-, and executive-leadership because it reinforced a pattern of indulgency to the most insufferable but – typically – least qualified candidate – that ultimately damaged the brand, eroded the customer experience, and impacted retention of those that had the talent and skill set to support organizational health and growth.

Annual Performance Appraisals are another way in which we create environments that indulge the under-perfomers and excessively entitled. Most retail organizations use this moldy, out-dated performance management process. They also use it ineffectively. The majority of retail organizations that still rely on annual performance appraisals usually have ineffective junior- and mid-level leaders filling out kooky forms, using a crusty set of measures/criteria, and who tend to avoid any feedback that could potentially cause conflict or confrontation. So, we excuse addressing performance issues because they are “too old” or “not a big deal” during the annually forced dialog we have with our employees and blanket rate the team members at a “meets performance” to avoid any hurt feelings or added work load.  The great employees don’t get their moment and the bad employees believe they are performing to expectations.

Thoughts On How To Reduce The Excessive Entitlement In Retail Organizations

  • Set Absolute Expectations For Performance Results: According to UNH researcher Paul Harvey, another cause of entitlement can be unmet expectations. Retail Leaders can combat this through complete transparency about the effort, performance and behaviors the company expects and that they expect. Being specific leaves less room for creative interpretation of what the standards really are. Your team should also be acutely aware of the criteria for success, promotion, reward, and recognition.
  • Express Gratitude For Your Team In Lieu Of Playing To Their Uniqueness: When you deliver positive feedback and express gratitude for your team – make sure the team or individual has achieved results through genuine effort and ability. Ensure we are thanking them and recognizing them for their results if/when they achieve or surpass expectation consistently. Avoid phrases – especially for one-off successes – such as, “you are the best team/best manager I have”, “You’re so fabulous, I wish I could clone you”. Let them know you appreciate their contribution but that you do not leave average employees with the idea that they are, in any way, superior to others.
  • Make Rewards Creative And Unpredictable: Providing predictable rewards or incentives [especially for mediocre results] will absolutely breed entitlement. However, it is equally damaging to withhold appreciation or recognition, but to prevent your team from becoming entitled whiners [for lack of a better description] who want a “prize” and feel deserving of more – just for showing up, make sure the prize is unique and specific to the person, and make the reward unpredictable but meaningful.

  • Don’t Feed The Beast(s) | Do Talk Openly About Consequences: Surprisingly, some researchers still question whether “management” can breed entitlement [my humble opinion – Duh! Absolutely – yes, it can]. Ms. Fisk’s research hints that playing into the behavior of entitled people makes the problem much worse. By not rewarding – and in extreme cases even punishing excessively entitled [and toxic] – behavior might help employees behave more reasonably. Building on the defined and clear expectations you’ve set, you can provide feedback about performance results and take immediate action around the consequences when an employee performance fails to meet the standards of their role and responsibilities.
  • Act Decisively: Now – your most entitled and annoying employee will, likely, make this incredibly difficult for you [and for Human Resources] but great retail leaders know what is right for their team and giving into a loud, ill-equipped, excessively entitled  employee would negatively impact their leadership reputation and damage the team’s morale. Great retail leadership is honest, transparent, and possesses a high-level of self-awareness. They are not cowards and they make decisions [even the tough ones] that are in the best interest of the team and the organization’s health and growth potential. In other words, they know when to exit toxic people from their team.


Founder and Editor in Chief of Excellence In Retail. Published writer. Frequent Podcast Guest. Speaker. Twenty year [oy vey!] retailer. I am passionate about leadership development and workplace culture. 646 246 1380 | [No Sales Contact, please} But it you want to call just to say hello or have a question - that's awesome!

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