Playing favourites at work

Communication  Relationships
21 January, 2019

How to manage favouritism and avoid the inherent disengagement it can cause

A colleague recently shared with me how he was told that he was singling out a few people, praising them repeatedly and not spreading the compliments. He was a bit surprised by this because he thought that he was being fair and recognising these team members for good work. 

Like it or not, as leaders, every behaviour (verbal or non-verbal) or action comes under close watch by our peers and team members. Even seemingly small things such as who we spend time with, who we respond to in meetings or who we praise, get viewed through a “fairness” lens. And it is not about whether we think we are being fair or not – it is about how others perceive us. 

I am very pleased that Ryan Mascarenhas has written this week’s message on favouritism at the workplace. Ryan, who joined Godrej a year ago, leads Learning & Development, Performance & Diversity for Godrej Properties.

At a recent stand-up comedy show, the comic asked a young couple about their kids. They had two – a boy and a girl. He then asked which one was their favourite and cheekily insisted they must have one. Of course the answer was that they loved both absolutely and completely equally (said with knowing smiles and lots of laughter from the audience). 

While of course those parents loved both their kids, it would be entirely human to have a slightly softer corner for one. Maybe the first child or the last, the one who is more like the parent, the one whose birth was more difficult, who is the higher achiever or better behaved or simply cuter. While emotionally, parents insist they still treat their kids equally, research shows not only do many parents have secret favourites, but that kids perceive which of them it is. 

This isn’t limited to the home. Think back to school… did most of your teachers have a favourite? And if favouritism is simply a facet of human behaviour, then of course it would have made its way to your office. 

As long we are human, we will end up liking someone better than another. And unless we are supremely self-aware, that does translate in the way we treat people.In many companies, over 50% of employees agree with the statement “Managers play favourites”. Favouritism is also frequently cited in research as a leading cause of employee disengagement and hence lower performance. 

This is something that has personally, been of interest to me. So, over the last few weeks, I asked people across companies what favouritism means to them and what the perceived “favourites” get that they don’t? 

Their answers included:

  • Better projects and/or better visibility to management,
  • More face time with the manager and being asked for advice on key issues or decisions,
  • More appreciation for similar work and/or less criticism for similar mistake as others,
  • And of course a more ringing endorsement by the manager in talent and promotion discussions

Any sound familiar to you? 

I also asked them why they think favouritism exists. Why is one preferred over another? Their answers ranged from the person who thinks most like the manager, who brands themselves better, who has a more impressive pedigree, who agrees with the manager and never pushes back, who is an old comrade of the manager or was with them in earlier hard times, who is seen as the manager’s person in internal politics or is simply a closer friend. 

Of course, most managers (like most parents, teachers etc.) would insist either that favouritism doesn’t exist or that the ‘favourite’ is simply the one who is more competent and dependable. And yes, there probably is more than a grain of truth in that. 

A study from Georgetown University found that 84% of senior management respondents in US companies felt that favouritism occurs in their companies, but only 23% admitted to practicing it themselves, while just 9% said that they benefitted from favouritism in their own careers. Clearly it is easier to see favouritism being practiced by others than it is to find it in ourselves! 

To whatever extent it exists, favouritism without checks and balances, hurts everyone. It leaves large numbers of employees disengaged, underperforming and prone to leaving. It hurts managers as they are not developing and using all talent and ideas in the team. Over-reliance on a few favourites leads to burnout and work disruption. Many ‘favourites’ don’t even appreciate either the tag or the extra work that comes with it. 

So, how do we manage favouritism and avoid the inherent disengagement it can cause? 

Here are some suggestions for you as a manager: 

1. Recognise and acknowledge your own bias 

Start with frequently challenging your own assumptions on people. Awareness is often half the battle when it comes to behavioural change. To learn more, watch this humorous and insightful video by Marshall Goldsmith on 4 questions to self-check if you are playing favourites.

A manager I know, after seeing low fairness scores in an employee survey, decided to ask his team members how fairly they felt they were treated. He was surprised to hear of multiple unintentional statements or actions that led his team to perceive favouritism, such as always asking a certain team member’s opinion in team meetings or dismissing ideas from other team members with less debate. 

Another colleague chose to ask others outside the team how they saw him deal with different team members. He too received some interesting feedback, like he could frequently be seen reprimanding certain team members for mistakes and delays in public and not others. 

2. Track what you’re doing 

Try tracking this for your team for a month. Examine who gets the most aspirational projects and who gets invited to the most important meetings. If you find an imbalance, ask yourself why this is happening. Challenge any bias or assumption. Try asking your team members what projects or meetings they would like to sign up for. It will help you consciously push yourself out of your comfort zone and take some bets on others. 

3. Explain your choices 

A lot of favouritism is perceived when people don’t know why decisions are made. So, talk more. Tell your team why you are making the choices you are. Encourage questioning and make your decision making processes clearer and wherever possible, more data led. Also, celebrate wins and talk about when and how people are doing a good job. This will help others understand what success looks like and how they can aspire to do more and better. 

4. Have authentic conversations about careers and projects 

Most worry around favouritism goes back to anxiety about how it will impact your career. Have authentic conversations with your team on what they need to do to grow. For example, you may have a team member who is known to be very dedicated and a dependable, hard worker, but isn’t someone who comes up with new ideas or drives projects independently. Talk about it. Together, identify smaller stepping stones to test some of the pieces she finds tougher to do, while also building on her strengths. You could find that she surprises you with new initiative. If not, at least you are both clear on expectations. 

5. Forge relationships with your team 

Make a genuine effort to forge personal connections with each of your team members, especially when it doesn’t happen naturally. This builds trust and is key to breaking the perception of favouritism. Spend some unstructured time with each team member to surface and address their concerns. It could be lunch or coffee one-on-one, post lunch walks together. It doesn’t matter when, so long as everyone gets some time at least once a month (separate from discussions on ongoing work). 

This being said, as Rebecca Knight notes in her HBR article How Managers Can Avoid Playing Favorites, “Directing your managerial attention and energy toward employees who deserve the spotlight in certain situations is both logical and reasonable”. Just so long as you have taken proactive steps such as above to ensure that the others see it as fair and logical. 

If you feel your manager is playing favourites, here’s something for you to think through: 

1. Understand where it’s coming from 

Appreciate that your manager’s perceived actions are likely to be normal human behaviour in responding to situations. You have the power to change that over time. I have a colleague who felt she was the victim of favouritism when she first joined the team. Many newcomers probably feel the same way. Over time, she realised that it was simply the result of her manager sticking to a comfort zone with dependable performers. That changed as she took opportunities to deliver beyond expectations 

2. Evaluate what the ‘favourite’ has over you 

Detail what you think you’re missing out on. Be honest. It’s easy to put it down to something like being a yes-man and miss something like her ability to influence stakeholders or the readiness to stretch to meet a deadline or the simple dependability of delivering without reminders. This will help you see beyond the bias to what is really being appreciated. 

3. Find other mentors 

Develop relationships with other managers and mentors who can provide feedback and coaching. It will help you get more perspective and learn how to progress in the organisation. Watch this video for more tips.

4. Have an open conversation

Talk to your manager. Don’t make this an accusation. It helps no one to cry bias either to a manager or other colleagues. But rather, ask about professional projects and recognition and what you need to do to merit it. I recently saw a colleague ask for an important upcoming project with some hesitation and be surprised when her manager assigned it to her because of her initiative in asking for it. Of course, you need to be open to some jarring feedback too. For example, you may be aware only that a project you completed was successful, and not that your manager felt that she had to put in a lot of personal intervention and rework. Either way, feedback gracefully received can only help you. 

I started with a reference to parental favouritism. While it may exist, I think we can agree that as parents, we still do a decent job of loving and taking care of all our kids. Learning from parenthood, managers must aim to create an environment of fairness and respect for all team members. 

Abraham Lincoln once said that people“…ask for just the same thing, fairness, and fairness only. This, so far as in my power, they and all others, shall have”. 

Now, that’s something truly worth aspiring for!

Many thanks to Ryan for sharing his thoughts on this very relevant and deep-rooted concern. Like he points out, there are many reasons why, as leaders, favouritism – whether real or perceived – should concern us. It can have significant impact on engagement and thereby people productivity.

When people start believing that leaders are playing favourites, they stop believing in our judgment and vision. It results in them slacking off because they don’t see the benefit in focused working, they become cynical and this starts rubbing off on other people around them. 

At Godrej, we are committed to fostering a culture of equality and meritocracy. To enable this, we must, as leaders, walk the talk. We must introspect on how to manage our inherent biases. So, on a personal level, ask yourself if you’re really investing fairly in all your team members and what you can do to better enable this. 

As an organisation, we need to work harder to ensure that our people processes are designed to weed out bias. For example, people processes linked to talent evaluations and promotions are usually complicated by the perception of favouritism. We try to mitigate some of this by making them more transparent and invoking independent evaluation committees and development centres, with multiple data points, and sharing detailed feedback. Let’s find more such ways to strengthen our processes and more importantly, execute them in the spirit of fairness. 

Are there any personal experiences or ideas on what we can do to avoid playing favourites? I look forward to your thoughts.

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