Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison was recently in the news saying that his children should not feel entitled to receive participation trophies for showing up, but should earn them based on results. Hmm…that sounds like the goal of a good employee performance management system.

Are we teaching our kids to feel entitled?

Let’s get clear about what entitlement is. The definition of entitlement that fits this situation is “the belief that one is inherently deserving of privileges or special treatment.”

This is not just the opinion of one professional athlete. We see this in kid’s sports and helicopter parents who fight for their kid’s grades in school, and the general sense that ‘I should have everything I want without necessarily trying very hard’.

This is truly tricky ground because many people feel that it’s important to build up the confidence level that children have at every opportunity we can because theoretically, that will make them a better person. Of course we want confident kids with high self-esteem. The real question is “have we gone too far”?

Self Esteem vs Entitlement

The definition of self-esteem is “confidence in one’s own worth or abilities” or “a feeling of satisfaction that one has in himself or herself in his or her own abilities.” There’s absolutely no question in my mind that building up an individual’s confidence will lead to higher performance and self-respect. The grey area, once again, is how to we go about doing that and whether the actions we take end up compromising the very goal of helping to build someone’s abilities and their confidence in those abilities.

As parents, we all want our kids to be highly capable and highly confident, and also to be self-aware and respectful to others.

We want them to put in the work required to get the rewards, and then we absolutely want to see them receive those rewards. The key is that they have to do some work in order to earn them and not just have things land in their laps.

Trophies and performance management for employees

All of the same issues with the participation trophy exist in our companies as well. We have employees who certainly deserve on-going recognition, but is that recognition the same as these participation trophies that we’re talking about?

In your performance management system, do you give everyone equal ratings across the board? Or do you find a way to recognize who your top performers are? And heaven forbid if you have any low performers, how do you call attention to their poor performance?

Performance rating examples

There are a number of rating systems out there. The ABC Rating System says that your highest performers are rated as an “A” and the low performers are rated as a “C”. The book Topgrading by Bradford D. Smart describes how you should build your company without any C players and all A players.

There’s the rating system where the top 10% and the bottom 10% are called out specifically. The top 10% end up having development plans that will facilitate their career and their next promotions, while the bottom 10% are put on performance improvement plans that itemize what they need to do differently very quickly or else they will find themselves being asked to leave the company.

The key in all these employee rating systems is excellent communication with clear expectations and feedback about performance. There is a differentiation across your people, rather than everyone receiving the same rating for just “showing up”.

Breaking away from employee entitlement

Here are some ideas I want you to try if you have a number of employees who you see as acting entitled to pay raises, recognition, or rewards.

  1. Create a contest for individuals where there are clear criteria for winning. It’s OK to have multiple winners if they all satisfy the criteria.

  2. Create another similar contest, but this time for small teams. Make it about beating the criteria, not beating each other.

  3. Have your team complete a rating of all the other team members, where they highlighted what they see as their strengths and contributions (to keep the focus positive). This will help build awareness of all the good things the team members do.

  4. Make the performance rating criteria very clean by creating a detailed rubric that shows in matrix form the criteria and what equals great performance.