Unleashing the full capacity of your people

Favoritism is Corrosive to Workplace Morale – Change that Lazy Habit!

Leadership habits favoritism bad habit, kids soccer team celebrating

We focus our blog articles on leadership habit change so often because if a manager can crack that nut and adapt her or his style to better engage with employees, that manager will lead better. Learning to tap into your employees’ internal motivators (which takes getting to know them) demands a more open, collaborative, peer-level “personal-professional” relationship.[1]

However, getting to know just some of your employees better, whether because they are more open and approachable, or more like you in style and outlook, is not productive. In fact, it can be destructive to morale, engagement and productivity.

The introverts, the people who struggle with light conversation, who are more reticent to share their inner motivations, still need that outreach to be fully engaged in their job. That personal-professional connection is harder to forge, which is another reason too many managers fail to make enough effort to break through and establish trust.

“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. (quoted in an article on Harvard Business Review.)

One of our favorite Forbes writers, Victor Lipman (find him on Twitter @victorlipman1) also highlighted the risks of favoritism recently:

“For senior managers who care about their organization’s culture (which should be all of them), rampant favoritism is an issue to keep squarely on their radar screens. If senior leadership passively tolerates favoritism occurring below them, it creates an unlevel playing field.”

This is critical. Any whiff of favoritism towards a chosen few employees creates a strong incentive for all the other employees to tune out.

Let’s define some of the bad habits of favoritism

Establishing strong personal connections only with those employees who are easy to talk to, who approach you actively or who adapt easily to your current leadership style (which reinforces a style that may not be adaptable or “agile”)

Playing politics by cutting slack to employees to have connections to senior executives.

Allowing some employees to break the rules, while holding others to a higher standard, for no objective reason (aside from those in your head!)

Let’s be clear: Performance-based perks that are rewards that everyone can earn based on results are not playing favorites. Just keep the rules clear, evenly applied and strictly adhered to.

How best, then, to keep this natural tendency to pick favorites at bay?

Build Leadership Skill and HabitsStart with awareness. Half the battle is understanding what favoritism looks like in the workplace, and monitoring your own behavior.

Work with mentors and coaches to highlight and correct the negative behavior. Having more eyes than yours checking on how you are improving is critical. They may also benefit themselves by studying this problem with you!

Stop, reset yourself, and proceed more evenhandedly. When you spot the negative behavior, you stop yourself, evaluate the impulse to play a favorite, and adjust your behavior in that situation to treat that person as you would all other team members. (This includes day-to-day interactions, divvying up of plum or tough assignments, etc.)

Monitor and guide subordinate behavior as needed. You have your own methods for mentoring and coaching your followers in proper professional behavior. Take your own habit change learnings and give them to others! Development of personnel is your responsibility as a leader anyway, so this fits right into that job requirement.

Favoritism is corrosive to team morale and depresses engagement.

You know this has a direct impact on the quality of your team contribution levels and outcomes. Eliminating the behavior will positively improve both your current work environment, and your career prospects!

For more details on how managers have successfully reset their leadership behavior to minimize, if not eliminate, the tendency to play favorites, call Brooke or Dave.

[1] We made this term up. We needed to describe how a professional relationship between a boss and a subordinate, say, needs to have a personal element to it. It remains a professional relationship rather than a personal friendship. But you need to get to know your followers more personally as a leader, to better mesh your priorities with their innate talents and passions. A follower who feels valued and sees a connection between their role and the mission (a “real purpose”) works harder, and more efficiently. You can achieve that without getting to know them better!

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