The entitlement impediment

By Brian Russell

Many of my colleagues express frustration that their clients are resisting or delaying implementation of expertly (and expensively!) crafted strategies. Our best-laid plans are only as good as our clients' willingness to follow them, and when clients drag their feet in acting on good advice, they can seem downright irrational. Most of the time, when there appears to be no rational basis for a client's inaction, the client knows something the adviser doesn't, and the adviser must dig deeper to uncover the impediment.

One major impediment I see is a self-perpetuating cycle in which parents: (1) foster entitlement in their children, (2) recognize unproductive behaviors stemming from the entitlement, (3) feel guilty about having fostered it and, paradoxically, (4) reinforce it.

Take, for example, the 70-something mother who knows her 50-something son's entitled attitude has caused him trouble throughout his life, such as in his career (or lack thereof) and his relationships (or lack thereof). She knows that continuing to "rescue" him, let alone continuing to indulge his unreasonable expectations, only enables him to remain fixated in a state of arrested adolescence. At the same time, she feels guilty, knowing she helped sow the seeds of his entitlement when he was a minor; in those days, she and her late husband were busy getting the family business, now worth more than $100 million, off the ground.

In such a case, the "cycle of entitlement" easily can impede the mother's willingness to act on sound advice. For instance, she may chronically delay the termination of the son's employment in the family business although she knows he underperforms and abuses the company's resources.

The primary progenitor of entitlement is parenting, particularly parenting in the single-digit years of life (when a high-net-worth parent may be consumed with building a family business and may overindulge the child to compensate for guilt over the neglect). While I wish I could say, "It's never too late to reverse entitlement," unfortunately, that's false. Entitlement is rooted in narcissism, which can be ingrained by parental overindulgence and/or parental neglect. Once entitlement is ingrained, it tends to be highly resistant to change over time. That said, it's never too late (and better late than never!) to stop compounding and start containing the unproductive effects of entitlement.

At the individual level, parents can stop "feeding" entitlement. At the broader family system level, they can erect barriers so the effects of entitlement become less likely to reverberate through the family (and successive generations thereof). Philosophically, these recommendations require a "tough love" mindset in which parents are willing to endure the short-term (and potentially protracted) ire of an entitled child, secure in the knowledge that the long-term best interests of both the child and the family will be served if they take a hard line. My recommendations require difficult conversations, perhaps including admissions of guilt and expressions of regret, culminating in the establishment of new and clear boundaries.

Setting these boundaries may include actions like placing limitations on, or entirely eliminating, the circumstances under which money will be provided or even discussed. But establishing interpersonal behavioral boundaries (particularly where none have previously existed) can be difficult, even for intelligent, otherwise successful people.

It's impossible to provide a conversation-starter "script" that will work in every situation, but parents may want to consider opening with something like, "By not challenging you to show more independence, I haven't served you well, and I need to change that while I still can."

Once parents have set productive boundaries, they must anticipate and resist the temptation to cross those boundaries—to do what feels better in a moment rather than what works better in the long run.

Brian Russell is a Ph.D. psychologist and an attorney and also holds an MBA. He specializes in the interaction of family dynamics with legal and financial dynamics in family business contexts. He's the author of Stop Moaning, Start Owning: How Entitlement Is Ruining America and How Personal Responsibility Can Fix It (HCI Books, 2015) and co-host of the Investigation Discovery network show Fatal Vows, which chronicles deadly serious family dysfunction.

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September/October 2017

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