Posted on November 26, 2014 by Blake Leath
Maybe I'll get all "Charlie Brown" on ya in the near future, and tell you what I think is the true meaning of Christmas, but today...well, today is Thanksgiving Eve, and therefore we shall explore the meaning of Thanksgiving, my friends.
I won't get all historical, recounting the first 'official' Thanksgiving for the thousandth time, replete with pilgrims and, as they were described until just recently, "Indians." Nor will I wax on about all I learned in a recent episode of Finding Your Roots. (Holy smoke, Batman, did you know that Sally Field's "10th Grandfather"—as they say in the ancestry biz—was, in fact, the first Governor of Plymouth Colony, served 36 years in that post, and presided over the first Thanksgiving himself...likely, in fact, according to one painting from the time, to have broken a corn cob over his knee and sat at the head of the table? Good grief, what are the odds? We like you now, Sally! Thanks for America!)
No, that's not what this entry is about. It's about something timeless, not historical. And no, it's not about family or friends, even though both are blessings, indeed. It's about work, because work is the primary focus of this blog. Sure, there are stories of funny cab rides and exposés about snorkeling trips now and again, but Blake’s Blog is really a Trojan Horse; a way—often through anecdotes—to illuminate the importance of organizational Strategy, Culture, Leadership, Change and Communication.
What, in the world, then, is the tie between “Thanksgiving” and “Work,” you ask?
That’s the tie.
Entitlement—the unbridled expectation or assurance for more and more—is perhaps the most pervasive, insidious and destructive among all workplace cancers. Sure, greed and gossip are bad, because they fray the social fabric of any enterprise, but they are generally interpersonal and obvious, and therefore resolvable (to the extent leaders wish to resolve them). But entitlement is personal, is quiet, is internal, is—as we each gigglesnorted as kids—“silent but deadly.” Being intrapersonal in nature, entitlement only eventually bubbles to the surface and becomes knowable too late, as people seethe and scheme and, ultimately, commiserate with one another about the many slights and wants and expected recompenses for their efforts which, in the particulate were no big thang but which, in the aggregate, become—as one friend said—“a big, bewhiskered burrito, Blake.”
2015 will mark one quarter century I have dealt with entitlement, both as an employer of others and as a consultant for clients. Were I pressed to place my hand on a Bible and then offer testimony in court, my responses would be as follows:
Q: “Blake, in your professional opinion, what is the most common complaint you hear in your interactions with employees around the world and across this great nation of ours?” A: “Communication.”
Q: “Thank you. Now Blake, in all your work and travels, from public to private enterprise, Fortune 100 to small start-up, what—in your estimation—is the most common root cause of an organization’s demise?” A: “Entitlement.”
You don’t even have to take my word for it, though:
“When employees join an organization, they're usually enthusiastic, committed, and ready to be advocates for their new employer. Simply put, they're highly engaged. But often, that first year on the job is their best. Gallup Organization research reveals that many employees become less engaged over time. And that drop costs businesses big in lost profit and sales, and in lower customer satisfaction. In fact, Gallup estimates that actively disengaged employees—the least productive—cost the American economy up to $350 billion per year in lost productivity.”
—Gallup Management Journal, Building a Highly Engaged Workforce
The correlation between employee entitlement and engagement is strong and clear, and the causation is not hard to quantify, because as individuals come to expect more and more—and don't get it—they tune out and eventually check out. Initially, during the “honeymoon phase,” we as employers are excited about a new-hire’s energy and can-do spirit. The proverbial sky is the limit. We are relieved and dreamy, walking on moonbeams as we ponder the future and its many unwritten possibilities.
And so are they. Now gainfully employed with you, new-hires can catch their breath, plant their roots, and burrow in for the long haul, anxious and eager to lean their career ladder against your wall and begin climbing.
Over time, there is the very real possibility that their attitude will continue to improve! To get even better than it was during the honeymoon phase! To arrive at work, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, decade after decade, and to greet you in the morning with a pie-eating Howdy Do and respond to your, “How are you doing?” with the always-chirpy, “Why, if I were any better, I’d be twins!”
Wouldn’t that be great? When it happens, yes, it is great.
I hope that we’ve all had the great pleasure of employing—or being—that Howdy Do. It is magical, like a unicorn yet possible and, as Billy Crystal might describe it, “absolutely mah-velous.”
But often, what we see looks more like a pitiable EKG that blips and burps and then marks the slow march and gradual decline toward apathy, bitterness and resentment or, on the bright side, separation. Why bright? Because I can think of few worse “living death sentences” for fellow employees than to be good apples surrounded by a bad one that worsens the entire bunch.
Earlier this year, I worked with a group of employees whose median tenure with their employer was thirty years. Median. Three-Zero. Trois decades. That’s a long freakin’ time, folks. For the most part, they were wonderful! Lots of Energizer Bunnies, lots of new projects and tasks coming their way, lots of reinvention and reinvigoration! But alas, as the bell curve soberingly reminds us, there were—and always are—those sad sacks at the far left who roll their eyes, cross their arms, exhale "exasperatedly," and when they speak, it has the same effect as a black hole, consuming all surrounding energy and hope.
I wish, dear reader, that the salves and solutions for entitlement were silver. If so, I’d sell bullets in bulk and you could nip each worm in each bad apple in the bud in one shot or one fell swoop. But it doesn’t work that way. The worms are sneaky snakes, really becoming parasites as they feed on their host's soft underbelly and drain his/her motivation and excitement about the future.
The root causes for entitlement are varied, some folks ultimately requiring intrinsic motivators (like inclusion, involvement, trust, acknowledgement, recognition), others requiring extrinsic motivators (like raises, more days off, statues in their honor, awards in their name, or company cars or cell phones), and others requiring some combination of both, or a quixotic alchemy of seemingly neither, often requiring just good ol' fashioned time to settle in—like many newlyweds—and to acclimate to the hum and drum of everyday employment beyond the post-honeymoon-this-is-perfect-bliss.
Sure, some rally and rise, taking stock of their own situation, hunkering in and bearing down and making the most of a very real and normal situation: long-term employment in service of a cause or calling greater than oneself. Every parade eventually comes to an end, and then there's nothing but clean-up and planning for next year.
Some unfulfilled employees collapse and move on, their résumé pockmarked with strong starts, few finishes, and silent former-employers who—if asked during a background check, “Why did this employee leave?”—would simply respond, “Next question, please.”
The best practice, and my suggestion to all employers, is to field great employees, work within your means to create a vibrant, healthy culture, communicate and overcommunicate your core values, purpose and yes, direction. Encourage and recognize performance, give people the resources they need—and remove the barriers in their way—and then let them do their job or make more of their job.
As an employee—and here’s the tie to Thanksgiving—we are each encouraged to be thankful in all things; to have a disposition of appreciation. Having traveled to or taught in every state in this country, and more than a dozen countries worldwide, I’ll let you in on a little secret: we are spoiled. We have more than we deserve. We are besotted with goodies galore, more than our neighbors across the railroad tracks, and way more than the estimated 18,000 children squatting in the streets and dying from starvation or malnutrition each and every day. Any time I am tempted to lament my woes, all I have to do is behold a patriot returning from war, his body battered, bruised, and partially missing from the mission. Or to recount the slums outside Mexico City or Beijing, where I’ve witnessed adults and children urinating in the street as employees were recruited on buses to be shipped “to town” for a day’s wages as slave labor. Or to recall an early boss of mine who would tease, “Suck it up, pink belt,” spurring me onward to work harder, arrive earlier, stay later, get educated, and give it my all before going into the earth.
In short, beyond perspective, which I have long embraced as a partial antidote to virtually all ills, a heart full of thanksgiving is the antidote to entitlement. Unhappy? Don’t like your boss? Want for more? Fine, choose one from among three doors available to each of us: Solve it, Suck it up, or Move on. Whatever you do, be all-in (that's all any of us can do), because the thankful in spirit, the appreciative, the committed…they are attractive and will attract greatness, while the embittered and entitled are eventually eaten away from the inside out, cored from the center out by that worm and become, as Zen Buddhists describe, “stomachless ghosts, always engorging but never satiated.” As employers, one can give and give, and at some point come to terms with it never being enough for some employees—not now, not ever.
In time, absolutely, many will stick and stay, attracting more like them, and others will slough-off and slink or bounce away, presumably to greener pastures and their one true calling. It is always my hope, as it should be yours, that this will happen and that each and every one of us comes to enjoy our vocation and to find a job in which our talents may blossom. God's design for our lives, if you will.
“The crowning fortune of a man is to be born to some pursuit which finds him employment and happiness, whether it be to make baskets, broadswords, canals, statues or songs.”
—Ralph Waldo Emerson
But once we have done all we can—assessed, trained, coached, mentored, provided, orchestrated, listened, prayed, encouraged, cajoled, compensated and accommodated—the day comes when the burden for engagement is on the other end of the see-saw. You, dear reader and leader, have done all you can, have set the horse free and thrown the boomerang into the wind with all your muscle and might, and now the question is, “Will it return to you?”
It may, or it may not. The choice is in the hands of the employee, until it is not. Until they become the bad apple, selfish to the point of self-destruction, spoiling the bunch through their attitude and running good people away.
Sleep well, the sleep of the satisfied, having gone above and beyond, and having done and given what all great employers must and should.
The very best companies in the world, and the clients who have returned to me more than I could ever give them—including motivating today's entry—have taught me this lesson in spades, made it clear time and time again: “We’re not for everyone. We're not heaven or nirvana, but the gate is indeed small and the road is indeed narrow that leads to us. For those called to be and work here, find us. For those called elsewhere, we wish you well on your journey.” Such is the promise of Google, SAS, Genentech, Wegmans and the like.
By trying to be all things to all people, you will be nothing. A convoluted mess. By trying to be something singular, simple, small, you will be great, perhaps, and grow. Not always in size, scale, or scope—in fact, sometimes quite the opposite—but surely in significance.