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Entitlement at work

Dr. John Townsend, author of The Entitlement Cure, explains how to get over yourself and get to work.

John Townsend

Have you ever encountered someone who cut to the head of the line or parked in the fire lane because they didn’t think the rules applied to them? This entitled mindset is what Dr. John Townsend, psychologist and bestselling author, explores in his latest book, The Entitlement Cure: Finding Success in Doing Hard Things the Right Way. Phoenix Focus caught up with him to learn more about what makes people who feel entitled tick.  

Phoenix Focus: The term “entitlement” gets tossed around in casual conversation and makes the occasional headline about spoiled children or government spending, but what exactly is it?

Dr. John Townsend:  It comes down to two attributes, really. The first attribute is that I am not responsible for my behavior or the implications of it. The second is that I deserve to be special. I don’t have to wait in the back of the line. I know people in their twenties and people in their mid-eighties who are entitled. It has nothing to do with generation. It’s a human condition, not a generational condition.

PF: Why do people develop a sense of entitlement?

JT: At a psychological level, what happens—in layman terms—is we have two buckets inside us. One we call the real self, and the other we call the false self. A person has passions, desires, strengths and weaknesses. The false self is also grandiose, self-absorbed and narcissistic. When a parent praises a child for being pretty, they didn’t do anything [to be pretty]. When a parent says you work really hard, love your friends, did a good job, that is the real self. It took effort. Entitlement is when there is an overfeeding of the false self and an underfeeding of the real self. 

The same thing happens in the workplace. You have people now who feel like because they got to work on time there is supposed to be a party. When bosses do that, they are feeding the false self. 

Both parents and bosses should reserve praise for two things. One is expended effort—for staying up late, focusing and working really hard. You praise that, and you praise success—when someone got the account or won the game. 

PF: Why do parents offer so much praise in the absence of accomplishment? 

JT: Because they think making a child feel good about themselves all the time is going to win. They get that wrong. We are finding out now that the self-images of entitled children are very low. When you dig into their psyches, you find they are terribly insecure, terribly afraid of taking on challenges and terribly afraid of failing, so it’s not working. 

PF: How does entitlement impact people’s professional and personal lives?

JT: They are unable to get and keep the jobs that could be helping them reach their potential, and they are having awful relationship conflicts. Entitlement basically creates a sense that since you are special, you shouldn’t have to get your hands dirty. This attitude sabotages success.

PF: So what creates success and reduces entitlement?

JT: When you look at studies on what builds successful people, one of the things they are very good at is doing difficult things. And the idea is that to do great business or to have a great relationship, you have to do difficult things and roll up your sleeves. That is the cure to entitlement. The habit of doing what is best rather than what is convenient to achieve a worthwhile outcome. That means failing and struggling and doing things you don’t have a passion for. 

You have to stop saying, “I deserve” and start saying, “I am responsible.” I deserve a great marriage and a great job—deserve is a very disempowering word. I am responsible to do whatever it takes to have a great marriage, a great job, to be happy. Now that’s empowering. The choice is mine and I can do something about it. 

PF: What does choosing to do the difficult thing look like? 

JT: What you find in very successful people is that they routinely start the day doing the hard thing first. Do you know any mom who says eat your ice cream first? No. That’s just the way life works. You learn to do the next difficult thing first so life is better later.

What really motivates people is what kind of life they want to have. I divide life into what I call the three P’s. The personal part is healthy emotions and healthy behaviors. I want to be happy and self-disciplined. The second P is people. I want to have great relationships with people I love. The third P is performance. I want a great car and a great job. I want to use my gifts to help the world. Entitlement creates problems in all three of these areas. 

PF: So how do you deal with friends, family members or co-workers who act entitled?

JT: First, you have to disconnect from the need for them to be healthy. You have to accept them as they are. Second, you have to be a little careful about narcissistic injury, meaning that entitled people are very sensitive to being embarrassed or humiliated. They can go into rages or tantrums sometimes. They can’t handle the real self. It has got to be that false self. Be careful of making them feel embarrassed or ashamed because they tend to react in unpleasant ways. And do what healthy people do. When they do something nice, tell them. 

PF: What are the benefits of pursuing the more difficult path in life?

JT: Life is in our relationships, in our internal world and in our work.  The benefit is that you have self-controlled behavior and heathy feelings. You have great friends and people you love to be with. You’re doing something meaningful that you are good at. That’s a pretty good life.