Accountability, entitlement, tenure and satisfaction in Generation Y

Mary Dana Laird, Associate Professor of Management

Generation Y, which includes people born between 1980 and 2000, is becoming the largest segment of the working population. There are 76 million Millennials in the United States alone. Many were raised under child-centric parental and educational philosophies that emphasized instilling self-esteem, but did not always link esteem to skill development. Possibly because of this “trophies for all” mentality, many Millennials have difficulty understanding that their efforts may result in failure. This is one reason they have been labeled the “Entitlement Generation” by many of their perplexed employers.

It is unfair to paint an entire generation with one brushstroke, but data consistently show that average entitlement levels are high among members of Generation Y. Psychological entitlement is a stable tendency to view oneself favorably and to expect praise and reward, regardless of actual performance levels. This can be problematic in the workplace where rewards often are tied to performance appraisal, which is one part of an accountability system. In support, research has associated psychological entitlement with conflict, job frustration and low job satisfaction levels. These negative outcomes may be one reason that Millennials are twice as likely as Generation X and three times as likely as Baby Boomers to consider leaving a job within one year of employment.

Given the entitlement and job mobility associated with Generation Y, Prof. Mary Dana Laird and her coauthors, Prof. Paul Harvey (University of New Hampshire) and Ms. Jami Burnett Lancaster (BSBA ’10), investigated how younger employees perceive accountability mechanisms that link job performance to rewards. They collected data from 181 resident assistants (RAs) from a variety of U.S. universities. Like many employees, these RAs have authority over their subordinates, collaborate with their coworkers, and report to a supervisor who provides them with formal performance appraisals, which ultimately determine if their employment contracts will be renewed or not.

Using hierarchical moderated regression to test their hypotheses, the researchers found some surprising results. Employees who felt entitled had lower job satisfaction levels than those who felt less entitled when accountability was low. However, entitled employees reported higher job satisfaction levels that roughly matched those of less entitled employees when accountability was high. These results were consistent for both low and high tenure employees. This suggests that high levels of accountability could neutralize the negative impact of entitlement on job satisfaction, at least within Generation Y employees. This may be due to the fact that entitlement is associated with a pronounced self-serving bias, which is the tendency to attribute desirable outcomes to oneself and negative outcomes to outside factors. This bias leads to inflated self-perceptions and unrealistic expectations for praise and rewards. By clarifying the relationship between performance and rewards, formal accountability systems make it more difficult to erroneously take credit for success and pass blame for failure. More realistic perceptions might decrease entitled employees’ unmet reward expectations, thus promoting higher job satisfaction.

In order to increase accountability, organizations might find renewed interest in management by objectives (MBO), which requires managers and employees to develop the goals by which employees will be evaluated. Not only are Millennials accustomed to being involved in decisions, but setting and achieving personal goals and performing meaningful work matters to them. Organizations also could implement 360-degree reviews, which ask members of employees’ immediate work circles to provide performance feedback. Research has found Millennials to be sociable, to enjoy learning from respected colleagues and managers and to trust peer opinion and social consensus, thus increasing the chances that they would view multiple-source feedback to be more valid than traditional top-down evaluations.

Although some managers may be frustrated by the accommodations provided to Generation Y, it should be noted that Millennials bring a number of desirable characteristics to the workplace. They often want an intellectual challenge, strive to make a difference and seek employers who value professional development. In order to attract, motivate, and retain young employees, organizations must understand and strategically adapt to the work expectations of Generation Y.

These results were recently published in Journal of Managerial Psychology.