A few weeks back a manager posted in a Facebook group about how her staff had an attitude of entitlement that she wanted to address. She cited a lack of appreciation around COLA (Cost of Living Adjustment)┬áincreases in compensation, an increase in staff benefits, and wondered “How do I get my staff to be more appreciative?”

I always look at these posts with a healthy dose of skepticism. Because of the Fundamental Attribution Error, we believe that we tend to be good and have good intentions and have a hard time assigning goodness to behavior we don’t like. So in this case, this manager believes that she is the one in the right here and her staff are wrong or “entitled,” whereas her staff likely see their behavior as good and justified.

I also bristle at the assessment of “entitlement” for a lot of reasons. Socio-politically, this is a term we use to talk about programs that help people in need. The phrase “entitlement programs” has now taken on a double meaning. People are entitled to health and help in the richest country in the world, but those who believe that people on these programs are somehow gaming the system will throw this term around to indicate a lack of willingness to work.

We also see this term a lot to describe millennials. Somehow a whole generation become, of their own volition, more entitled than their predecessors. I spend more time than I want to trying to dispel this idea. Partially because I am a millennial and partially because what most of it is borne out of is a sense of justice.

When someone with little power, authority, or influence asks for equity, people in positions of power often will call it “entitlement.”

My story about this manager and her staff is that what her staff wants is justice or fairness. They work hard and want to be compensated appropriately. Older generations who are in management positions believe in the misguided notion of “paying your dues” and accepting lower wage work as part of the hierarchy of workplaces in America.

But as we watch wealth disparity get larger and larger and larger, it is more likely that these workers are simply reflecting the reality of the situation: they need more to live. They need more money beyond COLAs that likely are just tacking on a meager increase to a salary that was already below market value because most young workers just needed ANY job at the time they entered the market. They need good benefits because healthcare is expensive and retirement is becoming a fleeting idea to those of us who will likely have to work into our 70s to get 10-15 years of respite, if any. And they need workplaces that don’t view workers as robots or cogs, or dehumanizes them.

When we decry a worker’s lack of appreciation, there could be some instances where they are just the kind of people who are never happy and complain because they don’t know how to do otherwise.

But chances are, when workers aren’t expressing gratitude it’s because they, get this, don’t feel gracious.

It’s hard to feel gratitude even at a win when that win still puts you 10-20% below a decent wage for living in your area or below market value. It’s hard to be excited about new benefits when they still don’t alleviate the burden of the cost of decent medical care.

And, here’s the real kicker, workers don’t owe their managers gratitude or appreciation. They owe them completion of the tasks they have been hired to do and that’s it.

But, if you want an atmosphere of more appreciation and can’t meet workers’ wants in the form of salary and benefits, the simple, if not easy way to approach this problem is to look at the atmosphere that has been created in the workplace. Are there regular infusions of appreciation for the work that is done? Have you modeled for your workers what gratitude looks like? Do you provide opportunities for appreciation to be expressed?

Workers get their behavior from their leaders, so if you aren’t expressing gratitude or creating opportunities to show it, they have no reason to suddenly change the norm. And in some instances, if they did they could be viewed as outside the expectations for the culture of the company since no one else could be expressing that behavior as well.

So if you find that people around you aren’t displaying gratitude for their experience, first check to see if there is something up. If they’re receiving a wage appropriate for the cost of living in the area and the benefits needed to live healthy, safe lives, then check on your company culture. If you are a leader and aren’t feeling a lot of gratitude for your work, examine what could make you adopt a different attitude, because chances are you are a microcosm of the macrocosm of the workplace you are in and what you want is likely what your workers want, too.

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