As much as we all know we shouldn’t, we do in fact, play favorites. The most experienced among us do not let it interfere with our work in a major way. But the reality is, deep down, there are those on our team we like better than others and if given the chance we will give preferential treatment. Even if that preferential treatment only amounts to the biggest slice on pizza Friday.
For others though, favoritism is a bigger problem. I find favoritism is more rampant in smaller businesses, especially family owned or where the CEO has called in long time friends to help build the business. I have even had CEO’s say to me that they will always give their sister/father/best friend from high school preferential treatment. They know it’s wrong, but they will do it anyway because it is their business and these are their friends and family.
And we should all take care of our friends and family right?
Even the most well intentioned CEO who hires her brother and has the “just because you are my brother doesn’t mean you are getting preferential treatment” talk can still fall trap to playing favorites. And it can negatively influence the business.
It’s about the old adage of perception vs reality. I don’t buy into the premise that perception IS reality, but I do believe that a distorted perception can greatly affect reality (that makes sense right). The minute a family member is hired or a certain employee starts spending more time with the boss than the others, every other employees assumes they are getting preferential treatment. Even if they aren’t, the rest of the business assumes it is happening and starts looking for it. When you look for something hard enough, you can find it, even if it is solely perception based. Something from the bosses perspective that isn’t grounded in favoritism can be perceived that way from other employees.
Obviously this hurts morale and productivity. Why work as hard as Joe if he is going to get all the credit, good projects or higher pay anyway? One common perception that seems to rear it’s ugly head is that the favored employee never seems to work as hard, be as qualified or deserve the credit they are getting. Even if that isn’t true, the other employees always perceive that the favorite isn’t really that great and is only where they are because the boss prefers them over others.
For any company trying to build a culture of engagement, having the perception that certain employees are favored, will ensure they continually take one step forward and two steps back.
What’s even more interesting is the effect having a favored employee can have on employees at higher pay grades. If the favored employee is not a manager, other managers can feel awkward or intimidated by that person because they know the relationship gives that person a bit more power. This can become a very hard situation to navigate leading top level leaders who have been with the business from the beginning to think about finding success elsewhere.
The good thing is that these things don’t escalate to irreparable levels overnight. There are often warning signs that employees are disgruntled and believe an employee is receiving preferential treatment. I would encourage any leader to take these concerns seriously and not just brush them off because they don’t believe they are playing favorites. We often do it without realizing it until it is brought to our attention. Catching it early and modifying that behavior before it gets out of hand can save a leader a ton of headaches down the road.