Managing employees is, in some ways, like parenting children. Every parent with more than one offspring has probably been fairly accused of playing favorites at one time or another. At home and at work, inadvertent or not, favoritism creates problems, and it’s something managers (and parents) would do well to be aware of, and guard against. Since this is a management and leadership site, and not a parenting one we’ll just talk about favoritism at work.
Bound in part by human nature (but not powerless against it), it’s relatively easy for a manager to step into the favoritism trap. Most of us, perhaps in response to the tough business climate, are running pretty lean, with little room for error. As a result, we rely heavily, maybe too heavily, on our stars. We give them the toughest, most important assignments, and most ridiculous deadlines. The most hours. The best schedules. More training. Cooler opportunities. And because they’re going above and beyond, maybe we grant them some privileges not afforded to all. We cut them a little more slack, and overlook the odd transgression that would surely be pointed out with lesser performers.
The average and poorer performers see this and cry favoritism, while the workhorse wonders, “Why am I the one carrying all the water?” Come to think of it, this is sounding more like parenting all the time.
If we’re really honest, we might admit that we just like some people better than we do others, for reasons not remotely related to job performance, and that we let that preference bleed through, even though we know that’s a lousy way to lead a group. Once we’ve gained control over that tendency, we’re left with the problem of favoring some over others for what we’d like to think are legitimate, performance-based reasons.
So what’s the difference, you might ask, between favoritism and performance management? Isn’t it only fair to reward based on results? And, doesn’t it make sense to use your best players for the toughest plays?
Well, yes, but there are better ways to reward the strong performers on your team, and strengthen the others, than playing the favorites game.
Favoritism almost always produces unwanted results. It rarely motivates the lackluster towards stardom, and can breed a sense of entitlement in the favored. And you can bet that, in a doomed attempt to prevent it, some bureaucrat or lawyer will devise a scheme of rules, the imposition of which will serve only to tie your hands, kill creativity, and squash good tries by the best on your team.
It forms the basis for too many labor grievances, and a protracted pattern of favoritism helps cultivate an interested audience for union organizers. In short, it’s a practice we want to avoid with the same fervor and determination as we do those difficult conversations about declining performance, hygeine, and the questionable wisdom of dating a direct report.
Here are some better alternatives to playing favorites.
- If someone’s not performing up to snuff, show some leadership, actively manage their performance, and don’t take the passive-aggressive route of ignoring them, mistreating them, and hoping they’ll get the hint and take a hike. Poorer performers deserve to be coached, and given the opportunity to improve, not left out in the cold, to figure it out themselves (amid shouts of favoritism).
- Establish clear standards for performance, and then be unambiguous in communicating those standards. Leave no doubt as to what behavior leads to which results. Clearly articulate the steps that lead to where they’d like to go. You wanna make more money? Work a better schedule? Do more of the fun stuff? Here’s what it takes. How can I help you?
- Build a culture of excellence, by making a clear connection between performance and rewards of all types. Above all, be consistent in providing a platform for visibility, and the opportunity to excel, but distinguish those who do their best work from those who are mailing it in. That’s anything but favoritism.
- Just as it can be difficult to see the spinach stuck to our front teeth without a mirror or a caring observer, favoritism is usually hard to self-recognize. Ask about it on your employee survey. (You are doing surveys, aren’t you? If not, we can help.) Or, give your peers permission to tell you when they see it. When you become aware that there’s a perception of favoritism on your part, seek to understand why. If you’re convinced it’s not really favoritism, make the case. Otherwise, make a change. In you.
There’s a big difference between rewarding the best, and playing favorites. Build a culture of excellence, and soon you’ll be leading a whole field full of stars, and that will be the favorite part of your job.
Richard Hadden is a leadership speaker, author, and consultant who helps organizations improve their business results by virtue of a focused, engaged, capably led workforce. He and business partner, Bill Catlette are the authors of the acclaimed business classic Contented Cows Give Better Milk, and Contented Cows MOOve Faster, and the new book Rebooting Leadership. Learn more about them and their work at ContentedCows.com.