About a year ago, my husband, Jack, and I received a letter from a woman who ran a 14-person firm in South Africa. "We look after our people very well—parties for birthdays, babies, and marriages—and take a real interest in each individual," she wrote. "Still, people complain incessantly: too much politics, not enough appreciation, and so on. I am about to tear my hair out because nothing seems to make them happy."
The complaint sounded painfully familiar. Over the years, we have heard from dozens of women who have set out to create kinder, gentler workplaces, only to find themselves victims of their own munificence. As another woman executive explained to us, "I grew up in corporate America, where none of my bosses gave a damn that I had two kids at home and a husband who worked. No one cared about how hard I was working to keep it all together. When I started my own firm, I was going to wash away their sins." As CEO of her own show, this woman permitted 12 weeks' maternity and paternity leave, and allowed employees who were parents to pretty much come and go as they pleased. To keep things fair, she says, she also permitted nonparent employees to take sabbaticals and work from home.
"I just wanted everyone to feel good," she said. "But all I did was train my employees to ask for more, more, more."
There is nothing inherently wrong with trying to meet the professional and personal needs of employees, but such a dynamic can spiral. Soon enough, in entitlement cultures like this CEO's, employees start to think the organization is primarily about them—not customers, not the competition, not new market opportunities, not productivity. Needless to say, work suffers. And the boss suffers with it.
The best way to deal with an entitlement culture, of course, is prevention. But if you find yourself stuck there already, the only way out is a candid conversation with employees about the way things must change to refocus the company away from the internal Garden of Eden and onto the outside world.
We Hear You!