Home » Favoritism In The Workplace Isn’t Always A Bad Thing: How To Practice The New Leadership Competency

Favoritism In The Workplace Isn’t Always A Bad Thing: How To Practice The New Leadership Competency

Favor hard workers who are willing to learn

For years, I judged executives and managers who played favorites. I thought it was despicable to promote and benefit direct reports who were essentially friends of the leader in charge. This was especially true when others on the team were working super hard and performing well but not getting any recognition for their efforts while the “favorites” were not held accountable and were even being promoted over the high performers.

Recently, one of my clients shared a story that she heard when she was a turnaround leader in her organization. An employee went to their manager with the attacking comment, “You play favorites!” The manager responded in a very transparent manner, “Yes, I do. Do you want to be one?”

As human beings, we tend to favor some people over others. It can be quite innocent, or it can be manipulative. I remember having a person on my team whose personality easily triggered me. She had a wonderful heart and was very dedicated, but when we communicated with each other there was a lot of misunderstanding due to differing styles of communication. In that situation, I had her report to someone else on my team rather than me, so that she would thrive more and be triggered less. In a way, it may have looked like I was favoring others over her because I spent less time with her, but it was my way of working around our challenging relationship and didn’t keep me from acknowledging her value or promoting her on the team.

Unfortunately, some managers favor people for their own gain. These managers favor those who will support them or side with them, even when they are making bad decisions, or be willing to give the manager credit for their successes even when the manager had nothing to do with the outcome. Mostly, managers will favor those who won’t hold them accountable for not keeping agreements or doing things that get in the way of people’s performance and success. These are examples of poor leadership and negative behaviors that destroy teamwork and organizational culture.

How To Achieve Positive And Accountable Favoritism

The truth is that favoritism is part of our society. Customers play favorites, the markets play favorites and people at all levels in the workplace play favorites. The question is: Are we playing favorites based on personal and cultural biases or are we playing favorites based on accountability?

Accountable favoritism is based on accountable attitudes and behaviors including:

  • Being open to change
  • 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
  • Including others rather than being the hero
  • Being a positive advocate for customers and teammates and achieving organizational success

Are you clear about what you favor so your direct reports know how to become your favorite and receive new opportunities for growth in the workplace, added development in their career and participation in special activities?

If managers aren’t clear about these expectations, then they can easily fall back on their biases, judgments and comfort zone to choose favorites that don’t achieve results, don’t challenge the status quo for improvement and don’t give deserving employees the opportunity to grow and achieve within the organization.

Steps To Develop Meaningful Expectations

Setting clear expectations isn’t enough to create healthy favoritism. A CEO might expect his senior leadership team to be in the office before him. He might also expect his male team members to wear a suit and tie to ensure they look professional. While these expectations are clear, they are also arbitrary based on style rather than business results and accountability.

Here’s how to develop meaningful expectations:

1. Provide context for expectations.

Context includes organizational priorities and goals, supporting a positive and high-performing culture and establishing a work environment in which people grow and thrive. The specifics are different for every organization but always promote mutual respect, emotional safety, organizational brand and high-performing results for customers.

2. Have purpose be your North Star.

What is the highest purpose for your organization that will deliver the highest levels of quality and value for everyone involved—from employees to customers? These are the outcomes that drive decision-making and expectations that will ensure the highest levels of behavior, thinking and emotional responses to the demands of your business. The test is never when things are smooth. It’s when change occurs, when uncertainty is impacting the organization and when we are pressured to meet deadlines and commitments—that’s when you need to really prioritize your purpose.

3. Set expectations at all levels and within all functional areas.

Finally, 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.

Having favorites should be about working for the good of others—customers and business success—and not for self-interest alone. A “favorite” is someone who others can depend on for support and trustworthy behavior, who contributes to a positive and healthy work environment by thinking of their impact on others when they communicate, perform and respond to challenges or change. While employees can exhibit these accountable behaviors, it’s up to managers to be honest with themselves about who they’re favoring and why and to put organizational success and integrity above their own personal interests and biases.

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This article was first published as a Forbes Coaches Council Post.

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