There’s a trick to getting entitled employees to stop complaining and do their jobs

So special.
So special.
Image: REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth
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Entitled people are a pain to work with. For one thing, they have a tendency to believe they deserve more of the best stuff—say, a higher salary or a big promotion—whether or not they’ve worked as hard or performed as effectively as others. For another, entitled people are less likely to follow instructions, which makes managing them an uphill battle.

A new paper published in the journal Social Psychology and Personality Science  sheds light on why it is that entitled people are so bad at following directions—and may offer some useful guidance for managers.

First, the researchers had to establish that people who ranked highly in entitlement actually did ignore instructions more often. So they asked more than 200 online participants to fill out a personality survey that measured their levels of entitlement. Then participants completed a word search with detailed instructions about what kinds of words to search for in and which order. Sure enough, more entitled people were less likely to follow the rules.

In three subsequent studies, researchers tried to find out what was motivating entitled people’s disinclination to follow the rules, asking different groups of participants, including undergraduate students in one study, to follow protocols for every day tasks like formatting a report or crossing at a particular spot in the road. The researchers manipulated various hypothetical situations to test several possibilities about why entitled people might be more likely to ignore instructions, based on previous research. Was it because they were more likely to see instructions as a personal inconvenience? Because they were more averse than the average person to being controlled by others? Because they believed they could get away with an ethical or procedural breach?

Then, in the two final studies, the authors set up the task circumstances to test whether entitled people reject instructions they find unfair. Previous studies have found self-important types to be easily offended, and to more often see themselves as being mistreated by others.

And bingo. The final two studies showed a strong association between the personality trait and the likelihood of viewing instructions as unfair, and thus ignoring them.

Complicating matters is the fact that “The World Is Unfair To Me” is a central tenet of entitled people’s worldview. According to authors Emily Zitek, a professor and social psychologist at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, and Alexander Jordan, a psychologist and instructor at Harvard Medical School, this creates a perpetual cycle. Instructions are designed to make life run more smoothly for everyone, not just one person. And so when entitled people ignore the rules, they’re likely to wind up suffering some kind of consequence as a result—which only makes them more likely to see the rules as unjust and thus to ignore them, and so on.

So what can managers do about this? The authors suggest that bosses may need to make instructions seem more fair to nudge an arrogant employee into compliance. (We know: 🙄) One possible tactic: “If the instructions come from an in-group member such as a peer instead of from an authority figure, perhaps entitled individuals would be more likely to view the instructions as fair and therefore follow them,” they write.

So if you’re struggling to get an entitled employee to listen, try getting someone the employee sees as an equal to offer up instructions on your behalf. People who think they’re special may get special treatment after all—if you feel they’re worth it.