The word deserve is getting a lot of mileage these days even recently becoming part of a few of Scott Adams’ Dilbert cartoons. As a business owner or commission based worker for almost my entire career, I find deserve an interesting term and am wondering what happened to “earned”.

Without question there are things we as humans deserve and the list has possibilities for being long or short depending on who you are and your own personal perspective. Where I have become curious is whether or not the word deserve is beginning to impose on earn and started to make the two words interchangeable. Examples? Sure.

Someone works really hard over a weekend and gets time off, do they deserve it or did they earn it?

Someone gets a raise because their work is exemplary, do they deserve it or did they earn it?

When someone does not get time off (their coworker does) because they did not work really hard over a weekend do they deserve it? They certainly did not earn it.

This is my confusion. I’ve always believed that in order to get what one personally feels they “deserve” they have to earn it. I think successful business people also feel that way. Just because someone wants it, or just because others have it, does not equate to whether or not someone has made the investment of themselves to earn it.

Business people can sometimes get caught in the trap of comparing their effort, their product, their investment of themselves in some comparative way to others and because someone else got a particular outcome from their effort or investment, that they too in fact deserve that outcome. That’s a really dangerous perspective to have in a competitive landscape.

In every competitive situation, which is where we all are every day, there are winners and there are losers. In a sporting sense between two competitors, they may both put out the same amount of energy and compete for the same amount of time, maybe even have practiced the same amount, but, for some reason, one wins and the other loses. Who deserved it and who earned it?

Vocabulary is a powerful tool. Great business leaders use words very carefully. To earn people’s respect, be thoughtful with yours.