Leadership Matters: Good Leaders Don’t Play Favorites

picking one persons picture from a stack of pictures
By Joel Trammell

3 minutes

Three things to consider as you examine whether you are unconsciously showing you prefer one employee over another

Being a leader has certain similarities to being a parent. As a parent, you love all your children equally. Yet you still must work to avoid the appearance of playing favorites and make sure you devote equal time and attention to each child.

When leading a team in the workplace, whether you’re a CEO or a middle manager, you face the same type of challenge. Favoring one employee over others for factors unrelated to performance creates havoc on a team, but leaders commonly fail in this basic area. A study by Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business found that 84 percent of surveyed executives saw favoritism at work in their own organizations. Almost a quarter (23 percent) even acknowledged practicing it themselves.

The perception of favoritism goes beyond who gets raises, bonuses or promotions. How many times have you seen a CEO and one of his or her executives attached at the hip, to the exclusion of other execs on his team? How many times have you worked for a manager who gave information to one or two of your colleagues while leaving everyone else in the dark?

In these examples, attention from the leader and special access to information gives a higher status to some members of the team, creating an “in” group and an “out” group. Like clockwork, that kicks off a threat response in the “out” group employees, which in turn leads to disengagement, resentment and low performance.

Here are three things to consider as you examine whether you are unconsciously showing favoritism as a leader.

  1. Accept that you have natural inclinations toward some of your employees. Whether it’s someone you have worked with for a decade or someone whose personality simply clicks with yours, it is natural to be biased toward certain members of your team. Those strong relationships are great, but you are responsible for leading every team member. Clear out time to spend with each person who reports to you, getting to know their personalities, strengths and quirks.
  2. Don’t confuse building a high-performing team with favoritism. You will naturally have a mix of A, B and C players on any team. It’s your job as manager to retain the As, grow the Bs, and work with the Cs to either improve performance or find a position that fits them better. There’s a big difference between (a) smartly tailoring your approach to these performance categories and (b) showing careless favoritism based on personality, assumptions or other factors. Each team member should be given access to the same essential resources and information as everyone else—but also evaluated by and rewarded for the actual value they bring to the team.
  3. Expectation-setting is an antidote to favoritism. One way to ensure that you’re treating employees fairly across the board is to sit with them individually at the beginning of the quarter and come up with the key metrics and goals they will be assessed on. If both you and the employee are on the same page about these expectations, you’ll have a solid foundation for the feedback and coaching you give them. At the same time, they will be less likely to feel that any promotions, bonuses or opportunities you give out are rooted in favoritism or office politics.

I encourage you to spend time this week examining how you work with your team. Are you showing undue preferential treatment to some? Neglecting others? The members of your team will never exist on a completely level playing field, but it’s your duty to make each of them feel they are getting the attention, opportunity and leadership they deserve.

Joel Trammell is founder and CEO of Khorus, Austin, Texas, which provides an enterprise leadership platform that gives CEOs a central place for driving execution, managing talent, and building culture.

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