A therapist’s advice for handling an entitled coworker

A coworker who thinks he’s special can be extremely frustrating.
A coworker who thinks he’s special can be extremely frustrating.
Image: Sweeney/Invision/AP
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Not too long ago, my friend Anna asked me to go out for a glass of wine and some “friend therapy.”  She said that she needed to let off some steam about a senior colleague at her agency, who had started slipping out of work early almost every day. Anna knew that the colleague had a second job, but it was not public knowledge, and Anna didn’t feel comfortable blowing her cover.

“I know she needs the money—she’s a single mom with young kids,” she told me. But several times recently Anna had to cover for the other woman. “I wouldn’t mind doing it once in awhile,” she said, “but she never thanks me or acknowledges that I’m staying late to do her work.” Finally, Anna said something to her about the extra time, and her colleague shrugged and said, “Well, when you have children, other people expect to pick up the slack from time to time.” Anna was stunned. “I have children, too,” she said. “And our agency is very good about flexibility to deal with childcare and school and medical appointments and all of that stuff. But I don’t expect other people to do my work. And besides, we’re not talking about from time to time. This is going on all the time now!”

What makes some people feel certain that they are entitled to more than others? And what can you do about it when someone else’s sense of entitlement starts to impinge on you at work?

Entitlement, according to psychologist Jane Adams, “is an enduring personality trait, characterized by the belief that one deserves preferences and resources that others do not.”

It is actually a normal, healthy part of a child’s development to feel special; but it is also an important developmental step to realize and understand that we are not alone in our desire to be recognized as having more value than everyone else. The little kid who excitedly waves a hand while shouting, “I know, I know, call on me!” to a teacher’s question might be cute, albeit irritating. But the adult who operates on the same premise of deserving to be singled out above everyone else is neither cute nor easy to work with.

Resentment, and asking questions like “why should they be treated any differently from me?,” is a natural reaction to entitled behavior, which can create tension and negativity on the job and impact both teamwork and productivity.

Someone who feels entitled all of the time may not feel motivated to do the work involved in coming up with a creative solution or even to finish a job. But, surprisingly, research has also shown that entitlement can sometimes have a positive impact. For example, researchers Emily M. Zitek of Cornell University and Lynne C. Vincent of Vanderbilt University found that in small doses, a sense of entitlement can enhance creative problem-solving skills.

So what can you do to cope with an entitled co-worker?

  1. Try to understand what is motivating him or her. Is this person self-centered or simply immature? Does he or she suffer from an underlying need to feel special? Zitek and Vincent found that some entitled people are actually just especially sensitive to unfair treatment. Recognizing the cause of entitlement can help you find a way to work with your coworker. For instance, it might help to give him or her credit for something they have genuinely done well, or to acknowledge the unfairness of a situation.
  2. Check out your own reaction. Are you jealous of this person’s self-confidence or accomplishments? Jealousy and competitive feelings are normal, so don’t beat yourself up for having them. But try to use them constructively. Use these feelings to motivate yourself. What can you do to make your presence felt? What can you accomplish? And what’s stopping you from trying?
  3. Set boundaries if someone is repeatedly encroaching on your time or space. A little humor can go a long way, if you can be funny without being mean. If that’s not a possibility, a quiet word might be better. Try the “sandwich method”—sandwich limits between positive comments. For instance, you can try saying, “I am really impressed with what you accomplished with the x account! I’m afraid that I have to get some of my own work done, though, so I can’t stop and talk about it with you right now. But that was quite a coup!”
  4. Consider the environment at your job. Researcher and professor of organizational management Peter J. Jordan has found that that poor performance management can increase entitlement practices in the workplace. He says, “There is probably a fine line between organizations instilling self worth and self esteem in employees and encouraging a non critical view of an employee’s performance.” Do your bosses promote a true feeling of respect and support, or is there a sense that you have to make noise to be heard or seen by them. One study found that entitled behavior can be decreased when admired leaders model a more respectful stance towards others.
  5. Accept when an entitled person just isn’t going to change. If that’s the case, look for backup and support for your own accomplishments. You will feel less distressed by someone else’s entitled behavior if you know that your own contribution and value has been recognized. Ask for an evaluation review from your supervisor. Of course, if your work environment is promoting the problematic attitude, that might not get you what you’re looking for. Sometimes backup has to come from an outside source. Anna, for instance, turned to me because I wasn’t part of the agency. But that kind of backup can have an added benefit. After letting off steam and getting some positive reinforcement from me, Anna decided to speak to the other woman. She told her that she needed to find another solution for coverage in her absence, because she and the other staff also had to get home to her own children.

Although it can be complicated to talk about another colleague to your co-workers, they can also be part of your support system, since they may have the same problem with this person. If you support and encourage them, they might just do the same for you. By modeling a more egalitarian attitude yourself you might even be able to “manage up”—your more respectful and less demanding behavior could have an impact on your co-workers, your supervisors, and even the higher ups in your company.

 Diane Barth, LCSW, is the author of I Know How You Feel: The Joy and Heartbreak of Friendship in Women’s Lives.