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Playing Favorites

Written by

Playing Favorites

by Bill Catlette

Key West • 1/1/19

Several of our recent employee engagement survey projects have indicated the presence of elevated levels of perceived favoritism within the surveyed population. It has occurred enough to cause us to pause and probe further for understanding. We've not yet wrapped our arms completely around the universal (as opposed to organization-specific) learnings, but here’s one consistent theme that has emerged.


Attributed mainly to the movement of very large numbers of people into first time management roles over the last decade, mostly without the benefit of any leadership development, we are seeing these emerging leaders learn how to ‘get the daily wash out’ by leaning hardest on those team members who prove themselves to be capable workhorses. That stands to reason, but so does the inevitable employee response. Not wanting to be taken advantage of, those who find themselves doing extra work seek extra consideration.


And they get it, in whatever currency the new manager has at their disposal: Preferential time off, plum assignments, special dispensation for minor infractions, extra visibility, opportunity to learn, et. al. Meanwhile, since this isn't taking place in a vacuum, others notice and begin to wonder (and seethe) about why they aren’t sharing in the largesse. This is particularly evident and inflammatory to a population whose education and social orientation has been largely thru the lens of a group project environment rather than a meritocracy. So there you have it. What do you do about it?


You can only ignore the object in the punchbowl for so long. Here are three suggestions:

  1. Ask managers to be mindful of the situation, and talk with them about what types of discretionary consideration are in (and out) of bounds. It’s vital to reinforce the notion that the object is to reward greater real contribution from everyone, not to create a 2nd, ‘buddy class’ of employees. Where appropriate and possible, make use of group incentives.
  2. Rather than attempting to hide the practice, be more open with your workforce about the fact that, when it comes to assigning and recognizing work performance, your steadfast intent is to be both fair and consistent, which is not always easy, or even possible. My preference (it needn’t be yours), defaults to fairness in most situations where the two collide.  
  3. You’ve likely got more untrained managers now than at any time in your organization’s history. Rather than see them leave or fail, why not start the New Year right by having an earnest developmental discussion with each of them, backed up with appropriate initiatives?
Bill Catlette

Bill Catlette, @ContentedCows is an executive coach and business author who helps clients build lasting competitive edge by eliminating blind-spots and improving leadership habits. Read more about Bill's coaching services, or contact us to discuss how we can help you or your organization. | This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.