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If you work, you get paid -- and the key word is work

Columnist Dave Conrad says creating a performance culture that includes “pay for performance” takes a sustained effort by management and a clear understanding by workers.

Ask Dave - Dave Conrad column mug
Ask Dave - Dave Conrad column mug
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Dear Dave — I manage a group of young employees. It appears that everyone is out for themselves, and teamwork is the furthest thing from their minds. And most of them have a sense of entitlement — they believe $100 bills should be handed to them because they show up for work. What can I do to make my employees understand it is they who are fortunate to have a job at a good company that will treat them right and there is no room for entitlement or beliefs of superiority? — R

This is a complicated question. Let me (boldly) first say that different generations have different values. The way we (older workers) were taught to work, obey authority, or even work in teams is far different from the younger generations of today.

I am not going to go into rants about Generation X does this, or Generation Y does that, or even take shots at the beliefs, behaviors and attitudes of Millennials. But I will say that the way we were raised and what we experienced is most certainly going to have impact on the way we work and what we expect for rewards at work.

Imagine that management had to treat every employee as a “selfish maximizer of personal satisfaction,” and they also expected things to be handed to them without having to reach outside of their self-serving comfort zones. Now, that’s entitlement.

But the current economy is one where there are jobs everywhere. Never before — in my lifetime – have I seen employers offer incentives and signing bonuses like I see happening right now. So it is easy to say that it is a “buyers’ market,” and young people have many job options. But they cannot avoid the fact that being enticed to join a company does not necessarily mean the company will treat them right. Simply, “all that glitters may not be gold.”

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Profits drive performance

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Some behavioral theorists believe that human beings are fundamentally selfish and “self-serving” by nature. Worse, our obsession with the bottom line has created an environment where workers believe it does not matter how they get to a profitable bottom line; what matters only is getting there.

I believe that hitting goals with fair play is the way good companies treat their customers and employees. If someone joins a company and the company ends up being unscrupulous and unethical, it doesn’t matter how much they pay them — good employees will look for opportunities elsewhere.

I recall when I was a young salesperson, I worked at a company that put enormous amounts of pressure on the salespeople. I remember when I was having a difficult month hitting sales goals and my boss told me, “Conrad, I don’t care how you do it, just do it!” Essentially, I was being given permission — I was entitled — to be self-serving, possibly unethical, and given the green light to lie, cheat, and steal so I could keep my job.

From your perspective, rooting out entitlement and creating a performance culture that includes “pay for performance” takes a sustained effort by management and a clear understanding by workers that they will be paid fairly and given opportunities for advancement if they do more than “just enough to get by.”

Management musts

Managers must create incentives that align everyone’s behavior with the goals of the firm. Here are a few ways to foster the kind of environment where employees will want to pull together instead of providing only for themselves:

Praise individual accomplishments when the employees think and act cooperatively and work together willingly for a common purpose or benefit — where and when employees reach out and help their coworkers produce, learn, and prosper.

  • Make sure bonuses reflect individual and team performance — compensation, especially bonuses, must contain some meaningful component of achieving somewhat difficult but attainable team goals.
  • Excellence must be excellent — do not water down what excellent performance is and what excellent achievements are. Mediocre is not excellence! Raise that bar a bit.

You can tell your employees to work fairly and cooperate, but unless you take deliberate action to prove you mean it, many will resort to only “what's in their personal best interest.” It is hard to toughen up after being a “cream puff” boss. But it definitely sounds like you should be more assertive and be ready to tell “the facts of life” to your employees when they display entitlement attitudes and demands.
Finally, I hope you provide performance evaluations. That would be the perfect time to lay it on the line that self-serving behaviors and attitudes will not be tolerated.

However, I wouldn’t wait until a performance evaluation comes around to make it clear that teamwork and hard work will earn them their salaries, and nothing is free — only superior performance will earn them better pay and advancement opportunities.

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Contact Dave Conrad with questions or comments at conradd@augsburg.edu . Conrad is an associate professor of business at Augsburg University in Rochester.

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