“I’m the goodest one, right?” asked the four-year-old girl. At the next table in the hotel restaurant, a clearly beleaguered grandmother was supervising her, yammering twin five-year-olds, and a toddler who was crying for a Band-Aid.

playing-favoritesThe situation provided the perfect analog for adult behavior I had witnessed earlier that day in a conference room. Multiple middle managers were jockeying for position in front of their boss — although not quite as explicitly or as charmingly as these kids.

In the restaurant, the grandma did a wonderful job of supporting each of the kiddos, checking on what they wanted for dinner and what activities they’d enjoy. It clearly took a lot of patience and concentration, but she was persistent, and everyone calmed down and enjoyed their dinner.

In the conference room, however, the leader hadn’t managed as well. So the team members continued to seek attention and praise, but very little work was accomplished.

Three Common Kinds of Partiality

When leaders are accused of playing favorites — from senior executives to frontline executives — they’re often surprised by the charge. They may believe that they treat everyone equally, but it doesn’t actually work that way.

  1. Special Relationships: Some emotionally needy leaders expect ongoing approval and visible markers of allegiance and loyalty from their team. They reflexively pay special attention to the employees who are most responsive to them. They don’t notice when such “special relationships” are viewed unfavorably by other employees. Nor are they aware of ignoring or cutting out employees who don’t ingratiate themselves. Instead, they think of less responsive team members as not caring or, even worse, disloyal — and subtly punish them.
  2. Failed Meritocracy: Leaders who feel strongly about rewarding merit may give more leeway, praise, or benefit to employees who have performed better or have greater skill — and inadvertently neglect to provide comparable opportunities to those with less skill or lower performance. Most employees can do better when they’re coached and developed, so significant untapped talent goes overlooked.
  3. Double Whammy: Since “silence condones” bad behavior, leaders who fear confrontation may tolerate inappropriate or ineffective actions. “Good” employees become disheartened when problem peers enjoy more autonomy or privileges than they do. Even worse, conflict-averse leaders still feel comfortable about providing feedback to reliable, compliant employees, who become resentful: “The bad folks can do whatever they want, while I get reprimanded for the littlest things!”

Ending Preferential Treatment

How can leaders be more conscious about treating employees fairly and consistently? It starts with checking their own reactions and intentions — and only then moving on their perceptions of staff behavior.

  1. Special-relationship-style leadership is the toughest to improve because these leaders have poor self-awareness. Often it’s necessary for a higher-level exec or HR to point out the negative impacts on the business, from underperformance to employee turnover. Leaders with this tendency are so unaware of their own needs and reactions that if they’re not coached early in their careers, it can be very difficult to shift their behavior.
  2. For meritocratic leaders, reinforcing good management practices and some personal coaching can create significant improvement. Remind these leaders to look for potential, rather than writing off middle-of-the-pack performers. If they actively seek a range of diverse contributions from the group, they’ll simultaneously provide growth opportunities for everyone and reap the benefits of improved overall performance.
  3. Confrontation-avoidant leaders need situation-specific, concrete coaching to cope with their team members’ ineffective or negative behaviors so everyone on the team has room to be their best.

When leaders are truly attentive to and supportive of all team members — the way the grandmother was with her young charges at dinner — not only will the work environment become calmer, but everyone will feel more appreciated and the group as a whole will perform better.