When Does Empowerment Become Entitlement?

By Balaji Krishnamurthy written about 3 months ago

First of all, we skipped our mailing last month and missed an opportunity to wish all of you a happy new year. Hope you had a great start for the new year!

Second, our December mailing included the Pay it Forward offer, and many of you took us up on it. Thank you. Hope you had an opportunity to spread the message to others. You can find a complete list of those who participated here.

Now, to our topic. Do you sometimes feel that some of your employees exhibit a sense of entitlement? Have you questioned whether it’s you or them? Did you do something to cause it, or are they just inherently that way? Or do you just chalk it up to the nature of the current generation? All of these generalizations might be missing the point – I’d like to posit that it might be your fault!

Let’s start with a simple analogy. Imagine a sausage factory with two kinds of jobs – sausage-stuffing jobs and sausage-counting jobs. Sausage stuffers come to work every day and are told to stuff sausages working on this machine or the other for eight hours. They take breaks when they are allowed to and stop for lunch during their lunch hour. At the end of the day, they go home and don’t think about stuffing sausages. When they take their allotted vacation time, they expect that somebody else would’ve stuffed those sausages when they were gone. They really don’t care who was stuffing them. It isn’t their job. They expect to come back and stuff new sausages for the new week.

In contrast, sausage counters have to count the sausages, make sure they are making enough to meet the demand, ensure that the stuffers are stuffing enough sausage to meet the specifications (but not too much to drive down the margins), and the like. Sometimes they have no time for lunch, and sometimes they have plenty of time to discuss the previous night’s ballgame. When they go home at night, they take their job home with them, worrying whether they had ordered enough casings for next week’s sausages, whether they have too much capacity for the slowing demand and what they should do about it, etc. When sausage counters return from a vacation, all of their sausages are piled on the floor to be counted. Nobody counted them when they were gone. They have to count the previous week’s sausages and the current week’s sausages. I suspect you get the point.

Most companies have both sausage-stuffing jobs and sausage-counting jobs. However, identifying which is which might not be as simple as it may appear. A common misconception is to equate this distinction with workers and management. For example, a software developer, who is considered a worker-bee at a digital design shop, might still take her work home and be brooding over a menacing software bug all night long. Conversely, a shift supervisor at a construction site might leave his work at the construction site when he goes home. Additionally, two individuals with the same job description might treat their job differently: one as a sausage stuffer and the other as a sausage counter.

What does sausage stuffing and counting have to do with entitlement?  A lot. Sausage stuffers are committed to doing a very good job of stuffing sausages. They don’t want more responsibility. Sausage stuffers expect that for a job well done, they will receive their negotiated slate of compensation, including their pay, benefit plans, vacation and sick time, etc. If they are due five sick days in a year, and by the end of the year they have not utilized all five, a sausage stuffer is likely to find a way to use the remaining sick days they’re entitled to. After all, they do a good job for the employer and they expect to receive the entire slate of compensation they were promised. You might view that as entitlement, but the sausage stuffer views it as their implicit contract.

Sausage counters view their jobs differently. They’re committed to the success of the business and are willing to do whatever it takes, whenever it needs to be done. They look for increased opportunities to contribute and view their compensation beyond that of monetary and benefit plans. For them, part of the compensation is the challenge in the job, growth of themselves and their career, and the freedom to operate independently rather than be supervised. Sausage counters value the freedom of independence and associated empowerment. They also recognize that with it comes an obligation: the success of the company.

To illustrate this, imagine one of the machines in the sausage stuffing plant is leaking sausages. The conscientious sausage stuffer working at that machine might yell out to his supervisor, “Hey, Counting Boss, this machine is leaking sausage grind. You need to do something about this.” After simply reporting his observation, the sausage stuffer feels that he has completely discharged his responsibility. In contrast, the Counting Boss is up all night thinking about whether the machine can be fixed, or if she needs to buy a new machine, how much the new machine would cost, whether there is room in the company’s capital budget for the new machine, and so on. Does the sausage stuffer want to deal with the headache? Absolutely not. Does the sausage counter like the challenge and independence of being able to make that decision? Absolutely.

The ownership of the company might want to empower and provide greater autonomy to their sausage counters in terms of how they manage their time, when they take breaks and if they can go to their child’s afternoon soccer game. But, afraid to label people as either sausage stuffers or sausage counters, they might provide that autonomy to their entire staff. Lo and behold: for the sausage stuffer, this is now part of the overall slate of compensation – their ability to manage their own time. A few months later, ownership looks at the behavior of their sausage stuffers and complains that they seem to feel entitled. Of course they are entitled: the owners enabled them.

So how do you solve this distinction? In the old days, manufacturing companies had a clear demarcation – hourly employees and salaried employees. In fact, the U.S. government then defined the concept of non-exempt and exempt employees (other governments have similar concepts). This worked well as long as we had sausage factories where the stuffing jobs were distinctly different from the counting jobs. But with the decrease in manufacturing companies and the increase in automation, most of the employees in your companies are now either service workers or knowledge workers. In other words, they are either serving a customer or using their thinking to create value. Both types of jobs appear to be sausage counting jobs. But are they really? Even if they are, do the individuals behave as sausage counters?

Interestingly, most new-economy companies have taken the position that all jobs are sausage-counting jobs and expect their employees to operate with the associated level of autonomy and obligation.

Now look at it from the employee’s point of view. If you gave them a choice, what do you think they would want to be?  Of course, you would have to explain the limited responsibility and authority that comes being a sausage stuffer and the broader privileges and obligations that are associated with a sausage counter. What would likely happen is that everybody would want the privileges of a sausage counter, yet not everybody would sign up for its obligations.

Here is an illustrative example. At Think Shift, we have a simple vacation policy:  “Vacation is good, take some. End of policy.” Is this a privilege or an obligation? It’s both. Yes, the employees get to decide when and how much vacation they take. However, their job remains their responsibility even when they are away. So before they go on vacation, every employee makes sure that all of their tasks are either completed ahead of time, or negotiated with a colleague to complete while they are gone. Even after that, do you think they have full peace of mind that they had covered all the bases?  No. During their vacation, they worry that they might have missed something. Every employee checks their email when they are on vacation. Management doesn’t ask them to do so. The employees feel a sense of obligation to do so. Is our vacation policy a privilege or an obligation?  It’s both. We find that this policy works well as long as all employees view themselves as sausage counters – with the attendant authority and obligations. But if you administer such a vacation policy to a group of employees, some of whom behave like sausage stuffers and others as sausage counters, it might be ill-advised.

At the end of the day, your desire to give people authority and to empower them requires that they rise up and accept certain obligations. Have you communicated those obligations?  Have you empowered the right kind of people?  Or are you unwilling to distinguish between sausage stuffers and sausage counters, and have thus empowered a few who will never rise up to fulfill their responsibilities? Has empowerment led to entitlement?


Food for Thought is our way of sharing interesting concepts on corporate leadership and management with others who might find it useful. The thoughts offered are intended to be controversial and thought-provoking. They are intended to help our readers intentionally realize their potential, what we call Potentionality.