It’s human nature to like some colleagues more than others. But when you’re the boss, treating direct reports differently — and especially Playing Favorites — is unwise and unfair. What steps can you take to make sure you don’t show anyone special treatment?
What the Experts Say
“When it comes to playing favorites, no matter how fair you think you’re being and no matter how high you think your EQ is, you’re probably guilty,” says Robert Sutton, Stanford University professor and coauthor of Scaling Up Excellence. Research on our collective lack of self-awareness backs this up. “Most of us are remarkably clueless about how we come across.” And yet it’s natural to have different relationships with different people at work. “With good reasons, you default to the people you consider to be excellent colleagues, the people you can rely on and enjoy,” says Karen Dillon, author of the HBR Guide to Office Politics. But when managers favor one employee over another, morale and productivity suffer. “The danger is that you’re laying a foundation for creating a dysfunctional team around you,” she says. Here are some strategies to ensure fairness.
Recognize the dangers
Knowing the downsides of playing favorites can help spur you to treat people more fairly. The reasons are plenty. First, Dillon says, “if you’re narrowly focused on always picking your dream team, you’re putting all your eggs in one basket,” and those favorites might not stay with your organization forever. “You’re not giving others the opportunity to grow and develop strength and breadth.” This limits what your team is able to accomplish as well as individual team members’ careers. Playing favorites also dents your own professional development. “We tend to want to be surrounded by people who see the world as we do and think like we do,” she says. But studies show that being exposed to different perspectives and ideas spurs creativity. “It challenges you,” she says. “You are not going to grow if you only work with people like you.”
Keep track of who’s doing what
One of the best ways to ensure you’re not favoring certain employees is to make a conscious effort to divvy up assignments in a fair, equitable way. “Hold yourself accountable” and “keep track,” says Dillon. “I guarantee you that the people who are not getting picked [for the best assignments] are very conscious of not getting picked, so you need to keep a record of who you brought to the last high-level presentation and who took the lead on the last big project.” Ask yourself, “Whose turn is it?” Simple things like rotating who leads the weekly team meeting can help project fairness.
Another strategy is to think inclusively, rather than exclusively, as you dole out special projects and distribute assignments, says Dillon. “When you’re picking a team, think, ‘Can I add one more position, even in a minor role?’” Encourage all of your reports to speak up and have their say. Sutton recommends making team meetings more participatory. “Give people things to do,” he says. “Try dividing people into small subgroups so that everyone has a voice and an opportunity to provide input.”
Get an outsider’s perspective
If you’re worried that you’re favoring certain employees over others, Sutton advises seeking the opinion of a third party: “Sometimes it helps to have an outsider’s perspective.” He suggests asking a colleague from another department or division to sit in on one of your team meetings and “give you feedback on where you’re focusing your energy and attention.” You might also ask a peer who regularly works with your team for candid input: Are you being as fair as possible?
Find something you have in common
If you know you have a tendency to play favorites, or at least avoid a certain team member because they aren’t your favorite, you must work on creating bonds. “It’s hard to hate someone when you have some personal connection,” says Dillon, “so make an effort.” Look for areas of common interest. Maybe you’re both fans of the same hockey team or you both like foreign films. Perhaps you have kids of similar ages. By cultivating conversations around those areas, “you will go from negative to neutral.” Besides, Dillon adds, you shouldn’t “waste your energy” on disliking a colleague. At the end of the day, “it’s a job. You don’t have to go on a road trip with this person.”
If there’s a person on your team who you just can’t stand, Sutton says you must “do the best you can to develop empathy for that person.” Bear in mind, though, that “empathy is not about making people feel good.” Rather, it’s about recognizing and appreciating the feelings of others. “As a leader, there are times when you may need to express disapproval, but the more you understand how you are making that person feel, the more effective you will be.”
Realize it’s OK to give certain employees more attention at times
You can’t be fair all the time. So recognize that there’s a difference between having a few pet employees and making a strategic choice about where to expend your time and effort. “In the most functional teams, everyone isn’t treated equally; the person who has the most expertise for whatever you need to get done at that moment has the most decision-making authority,” Sutton says. If you have a legal crisis on your hands, for example, your general counsel is “the most important person in the room.” And this employee’s “skills need to be center stage.” In other words, directing your managerial attention and energy toward employees who deserve the spotlight in certain situations is both logical and reasonable.
Principles to Remember
- Make a conscious effort to divvy up your team’s work in an equitable way by keeping track of who got the last choice assignment
- Work on forging personal connections with all of your colleagues — especially those you don’t particularly like
- Take the perspective of each of your employees and think through how you’re making them feel
- Ignore the dangers of playing favorites; keeping them in mind will help keep you honest
- Assume that you’re always being fair. Chances are you’re favoring certain employees over others, whether you’re aware of it or not
- Shy away from asking a third party whether you’re being fair
Case Study #1: Think inclusively and connect with team members on a personal level
Mario Chamorro, a growth marketer in San Francisco, knows how important it is to treat employees fairly. “I think of my role as manager as empowering the people on my team,” he says.
A few years ago he ran a small group at a Bay Area startup. He liked working with everyone, but there was one colleague, “Brad,” that he especially clicked with. “Brad and I were similar,” says Mario. “Both creative, dorky, and outgoing.”
Because he and Brad got along so well and enjoyed working together, Mario was careful not to show him any special treatment. To do that, Mario thought carefully when he assigned high-profile projects. Once, for instance, the team had the opportunity to pitch its services to 3M. Selecting Brad for the team was a no-brainer. “He was a great storyteller and presenter,” says Mario.
Brad didn’t necessarily need help with the presentation, but Mario wanted to be inclusive, so he appointed Natalie, another colleague, to be part of the pitch team. Natalie was more soft-spoken, but she had relevant strengths. “Natalie was not as strong at presenting, but she was very detail oriented and excellent with numbers,” he says.
Including Natalie in the pitch gave her an opportunity to grow and develop. And being in the room during such a high-profile meeting made Natalie feel like an important member of the team. “It empowered her,” Mario says. “During the Q&A, she did great.”
Another way Mario made sure to treat his employees fairly was to develop strong personal relationships with each of them as individuals. “I didn’t think of it as hard work,” he says. “I’m a connector by nature, and I like to forge friendships with people.”
“It’s a way to see people’s hidden superpowers and let them shine,” he says. “And it helped me get to know them better.”
Case Study #2: Have empathy and think broadly about your team’s success
When Trevor Longino worked at an Orlando-based startup incubator, he was promoted from copywriter to VP of marketing within his first six months on the job. “I had no real experience managing a large, diverse team,” he recalls. “Naturally, there were people I liked more and people I liked less. But I didn’t want to play favorites.”
This was hard, however, because Trevor had one direct report, “Joe,” whom he couldn’t stand. Joe did not have a strong work ethic, he sulked, and he watched a lot of YouTube during work hours. “We didn’t mesh,” recalls Trevor, “and it was sometimes unpleasant.”
Over time, Trevor realized that how he managed the team was suffering from his disdain for Joe. “I was giving [the best assignments] to the people I played foosball with during lunch and colleagues with whom I used to go out for drinks after work. I liked them, and I knew I could rely on them.”
One day, Trevor realized how unfair his treatment of Joe was while talking with a different colleague. Joe butted into their conversation with something unrelated; Trevor, as usual, barely acknowledged Joe. “But my colleague, a person I really trusted and respected, said something like, ‘That’s interesting, Joe. Trevor and I are busy right now working on something else. I will come over to you later and talk about it.’”
Trevor saw that his colleague’s response had a noticeable impact on Joe’s demeanor and attitude. “Joe seemed happy as he walked away from us,” he says.
The experience made him realize that he had been overly dismissive of Joe and that “needed to do [his] very best to have a cordial, professional relationship” with him.
“I learned to bite my tongue,” he says. “The relationship didn’t magically get better overnight, but it did improve somewhat.”
Today Trevor is CMO of a Montréal-based startup focused on productivity. He says his approach to leadership has evolved. “I’ve gained more experience, and I realize how important it is to think about the success of individuals as well as the success of the overall team. You can cluster together with people you like and who think like you and work like you, but that creates silos.”
In order not to play favorites, he talks with each of his direct reports once a quarter about their goals. “I ask them about where they want to be in a year or two, and then we consciously choose projects that will get them there,” he says. “That makes sure people are doing the work they truly want to do.”