I was recently speaking to someone who had joined a start-up in a senior role. He was sounding disheartened. He felt that the founder had an “inner circle” with his favourite employees. These employees seemed to be getting preferential treatment from the founder. He was considering leaving the company as he felt he would remain marginalised.
It’s no secret that people in positions of authority often play favourites, from schoolteachers to leaders. But is favouritism always destructive, or can it be harnessed in a beneficial way?
This week, my message focuses on the pros and cons of favouritism at the workplace. In what ways is playing favourites a double-edged sword? And how can managers employ favouritism for the greater good while steering clear of its pitfalls?
Picking favourites at the workplace is typically viewed as unfair. When leaders give preferential treatment to certain employees — be it favouring them for plum assignments, office perks or social invitations — it can lead to anger, demotivation and toxicity among other team members. Those who feel overlooked may try to undermine the favoured employee or become resentful towards their boss, which in turn harms team dynamics and compromises performance.
These problems tend to arise when favouritism is based on cultural and personal biases, or if it becomes a tool for the leader’s personal gain and control.
For instance, if a manager gives a team member their pick of projects because they went to the same business school or have interests in common — that is personal preference at play. Or if a leader deploys favouritism as a weapon to garner unquestioning support from team members — that is about self-interest. These are examples of toxic favouritism, which impede team unity and undercut the organization’s diversity and inclusion efforts.
Favouritism can begin quite innocuously and become more blatant over time. Ryan Kahn, founder of The Hired Group, elaborates:
People enjoy working with friends, which often inadvertently turns into favoritism. It can start as something as simple as being included on a lunch outing where business is discussed and may lead to something much more substantial, like getting salary and promotional benefits.
When playing favourites causes more qualified, better-performing employees to lose out on deserved opportunities, it obviously becomes a huge concern. This kind of favouritism is not only counterproductive but may also violate company policies and anti-discrimination laws.
The upside of playing favourites
On the flipside, favouritism can also have a surprisingly positive effect. In a study recently published in Personnel Psychology, in less-structured teams, favouritism was found to improve coordination, reduce conflict and boost effectiveness.
In many cases, employees who witnessed their boss picking a favourite were motivated to improve themselves. In other cases, however, they turned resentful and even tried to sabotage the favoured employee. So, what drove the difference in reaction? As the researchers explain:
While favoritism of any sort has the potential to be frustrating to those who feel left out, employees are likely to react a lot better if they can see that you’ve built the strongest relationships with top performers, rather than simply with people you seem to like better.
Interestingly, the way in which the favoured employee expresses themselves also plays a key role in determining the response of their team members. Those who attribute their achievements to hard work and effort are envied in a harmless way, while those who focus on intrinsic qualities like talent and charm are treated with hostility. If you are the boss’s favourite, the key takeaway is this: it is okay to take pride in your achievements in moderation and with a focus on the work you have put in. Sharing your learnings with co-workers can also help you maintain a positive relationship with them.
The best kind of favouritism is “earned” or “accountable”. When leaders favour team members based on clear-cut factors such as strong performance, citizenship behaviours and the willingness to take on new challenges, then favouritism can be harnessed for good. A “favourite” should ideally be someone who works for the good of the team, business and customers, someone who contributes to a positive work environment and can be counted on to offer support when needed.
In some ways, favouritism is a given. Research has consistently found that leaders, whether they realize it or not, treat their team members in different ways due to implicit preferences and biases. According to a survey by Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, 92% of senior business executives have witnessed favouritism at work in employee promotions and around 25% admit to playing favourites themselves.
As observed by the authors of the Personnel Psychology article mentioned above:
As a manager, it’s critical both to acknowledge that there’s no avoiding some amount of variation in your relationships with your different reports, and to work to ensure that you’re still doing your best to build these relationships fairly and equitably.
Practicing healthy favouritism
What steps can managers take to foster a work environment in which their “favour” plays a role in driving stronger performance and improved team dynamics? Here are five recommendations for those of you in leadership positions.
1. Conduct a reality check.
To start with, it’s important for managers to be honest about who they’re favouring and why. Don’t assume that you’re always being fair; even leaders with the best intentions often treat team members differently, albeit unconsciously.
Take a long hard look at your managerial decisions: which team members receive preferential treatment from you? What are your reasons for choosing these people? You may realize that you are picking favourites based on personal biases and preferences. Armed with this self-awareness, leaders can eliminate the more toxic aspects of favouritism and strive for a more constructive approach.
2. Set clear terms of favour.
As a manager, it’s immensely helpful to be clear about which behaviours you value, so your team members know what they need to do to receive new opportunities and grow their career. Keep in mind that the expectations should not only be clear but also meaningful. As a Forbes article on this topic suggests:
Once everyone is clear on the context and purpose that drives overall success, then it’s time to clarify the necessary collective habits of execution that will optimize results. What’s important about creating team habits is that they are devoid of personality, power, style and ego. This is the most effective and efficient way to function to produce results in a sustainable manner.
Some of the accountable attitudes and behaviours you could focus on are:
- Supporting other team members in being successful
- Getting commitments completed on time and doing it in a way that demonstrates care and respect for others
- Admitting when you have made a mistake, correcting it and learning from it
- Being a positive advocate for customers and teammates and achieving organizational success
3. Don’t overlook the non-favourites.
When managers give the lion’s share of attention to just 1-2 employees, the unique skills and contributions of others tend to go unnoticed. Even if you favour certain team members for assignments or benefits, you must ensure that others also have the opportunity to develop themselves and shine. That means providing timely feedback and celebrating their achievements. Managers should also make an effort to recognize productive employees whose jobs are away from the limelight.
Most importantly, all team members are equally deserving of your respect, empathy and compassion — these fundamentals should certainly not be governed by favouritism!
4. Foster a culture of humility.
By role-modelling humility, leaders can help to create a non-antagonistic work environment. When your “favourites” realize that you value humble behaviour, they will be motivated to downplay their own achievements, thereby helping curtail toxic politicking among their team members.
5. Keep it professional.
While having friendships at work can be a nice bonus, it’s important for leaders to maintain a professional and equitable attitude with all team members. An over-the-top friendship with one person can create friction, undermine trust and lead to a perception of unmerited favouritism — regardless of whether the person in question is receiving special treatment or not. When it comes to social interactions at the workplace, such as getting a cup of coffee or having lunch in the cafeteria, make it a point to treat your team members in the same manner.
Finally, leaders must ensure that all direct reports are held to the same standards of ethical behaviour. Don’t let favoured employees get away with actions for which others would be pulled up.
Favouritism at the workplace is a contentious issue and can have serious repercussions. At the same time, it can also be a positive force if clearly tied to factors like performance, accountability, and collaboration. If leaders choose to play favourites, they should do so in a constructive manner that helps to nurture a winning culture while also fostering a sense of belonging for all employees.