Why Managers Play Favorites – and How They Can Change

ALISON BEARD: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Alison Beard. Anyone who’s worked anywhere has seen this phenomenon play out. There are certain employees that the boss likes, trusts, talks to, and certain employees that are not in that circle. In-groups and out-groups, favorites and non-favorites. It always happens. And yet if you talk to managers, very few will admit to behaving this way. I bet a lot of you out there are saying, “I don’t play favorites. I’m fair, balanced, I treat everyone on my team the same way.” But do you really? Are the best assignments doled out perfectly equally?

Do you give each person the same amount of attention, advice, praise? Do you click with everyone in exactly the same way? The reality is that all humans, even good, well-intentioned bosses will prefer the company and work products of some people over that of others. But if you let in-groups and out-groups develop and fester, it can destroy team morale and output. So how do we recognize when we’re falling into this trap? How do we stop playing favorites? And if relationships and group dynamics have already been damaged, how do we fix them?

Today’s guest has some answers for us. Ginka Toegel is a professor at IMD Business School and co-author, along with Jean-Louis Barsoux, of the HBR article Stop Playing Favorites. Ginka welcome.

GINKA TOEGEL: I’m delighted to be here.

ALISON BEARD: So as I said, most bosses that I know would never admit to playing favorites. What evidence do you have that they’re probably misjudging themselves?

GINKA TOEGEL: It’s human nature to like some people more than others, but favoritism is an all-too-common problem. In one study, 75% of employees reported to witnessing favoritism in the workplace. And another one suggests that 56% of executives have a favorite candidate when making internal promotion decisions. 47% of American employees confirmed that their supervisor had favorites indeed.

When it comes to the definition of favoritism, it is about a certain preferential treatment of some direct reports relative to others. And that preferential treatment is based on the relationship those direct reports have with their manager rather than based on merit or performance.

Favorites are assigned more interesting and challenging tasks. They are promoted faster. They enjoy pay increases while other direct reports are overlooked, although they might be equally skilled. And sometimes managers might turn a blind eye to poor performance of favorites.

ALISON BEARD: Why do you think that managers act this way even when they know that they shouldn’t?

GINKA TOEGEL: Actually, the phenomenon of favoritism has been studied for more than four decades. And very early researchers figured out that leaders tend to have different exchange relationships with their subordinates, and those relationships could take one of two forms. Some of the direct reports with similar characteristics to those of the leader, they form the so-called in-groups while the rest become members of what we label as out-groups.

And when we talk about similar characteristics, what we have in mind are characteristics related to demographics. For example, age, educational background, some personality characteristics, political affiliation, common interests, hobbies, etc. When two people have similar interests, beliefs, values, personality traits, it’s easy for them to connect and to interact with each other relative to interacting with those with whom they don’t have anything in common.

Just to give you an example, let’s assume that I just hired a new member of my team and within a very short period of time… Actually the frame is something like five to seven days – I come to the conclusion that we are very similar when it comes to, for example, dealing with problems. That this individual is keen to get all the details and the data before they make a decision. And I’m like this. So immediately I have the feeling that I’m going to be able to work with this person much more easily.

And this leads to liking. At the core of this theory, of leader-member exchange theory, is this notion that similarity leads to liking, which then of course has certain behavioral consequences on the part of the manager. There are two criteria that we use when we make those decisions where to place people around us, whether they end up in the in-group or in the out-group. Criteria number one is similarity. And the other criteria is the perceived competence of this individual. And again, it makes perfect sense.

If I consider one of my team members to be a talented, gifted, capable individual, I’m going to trust this person that they are going to help me to reach my goals, therefore I’m going to like this individual and I’m going to provide this person with more feedback. I’m going to assign to this individual more challenging assignments. And as a result of those, this person is going to grow. So over time, my expectation that it’s easy to work with this individual is going to be confirmed. And probably I will start thinking, “I have always known that this is a very competent person.”

Relative to a member from my out-group: I might not have what we call the chemistry because we are very different. I might be less reluctant to spend time with this individual. I might provide less feedback. Maybe I’m going to consider it quite risky to provide this individual with challenging assignments. And over time, what am I going to observe? Probably the performance of that individual is going to spiral down. In other words, it becomes a little bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

ALISON BEARD: Either a virtuous or a vicious cycle. It might seem obvious, but why is it really bad for a team to have an in-group and an out-group?

GINKA TOEGEL: Favoritism is a dangerous game to play. Managers should keep any favoritism in check because it’s a form of work injustice. And when on the wrong side of the divide, as a member of the out-group, direct reports feel undervalued, underappreciated, demotivated. Sometimes they feel excluded and marginalized.

Probably they’re going to perceive the work environment as toxic. They’re going to develop some hostility, resentment towards their manager, which of course is going to decrease morale. It’s going to erode the trust and the respect for the manager. And by the way, there’s some serious reputational damages that could follow because non-favorites vent outside the team. And needless to say, what we would probably observe is reduced job satisfaction, reduced collaboration, and therefore performance.

And favoritism is counterproductive because it also could be quite costly for the organization. It can lead to turnover and therefore replacement costs, productivity losses in general. And the organization as a whole is losing its competitive advantage by failing to grow its human capital.

ALISON BEARD: How would a manager who thinks everything’s fine figure out whether they’ve maybe unknowingly created this kind of division? Are there particular signs to look forward to? Do you ask people directly? Do you do anonymous surveys?

GINKA TOEGEL: Managers need to be aware of favoritism and also its impact, and there is a way for them to monitor their own behavior. Recent research suggests that quality relationships can fluctuate even from one week to the other. And our suggestion is that managers spend a bit of time at the end of each week auditing their relationships with their team members by asking themselves three simple questions.

Did I make this direct report feel competent? Did I acknowledge their expertise and accomplishments during the last week? Did I foster the growth by delegating challenging tasks or discussing career progression or increasing their visibility – did I look for some opportunities, for example, to praise them publicly?

And if the answer on one of those questions is known over a certain period of time, for example, two, three weeks, then we would strongly recommend that the manager reaches out to this direct report because there is a need to develop this relationship. And the more you interact with the team members, the more likely it is that you’re going to discover, for example, some similarities or you’re going to be positively surprised by a conversation, which would give you some evidence that this person is probably more competent than you thought they are. All these are drivers of liking.

ALISON BEARD: So it sounds like the first step is self-diagnosis and one-on-one outreach. When you have those conversations where you’re doing some outreach to the people who have been in your out-group, how does that conversation start? Do you acknowledge that they’ve been neglected? Or do you just step up your game?

GINKA TOEGEL: That conversation needs to be prepared, and I’m always amazed how often we tend to improvise. And these are important conversations. The better prepared we are for those, the more productive they’re going to be. For those situations, we recommend an intervention involving three steps. So the first one is the preparation stage. One way to get prepared is to do some role playing either with a coach or with a trusted colleague. I personally like the empty chair technique. I started my career as a psychotherapist, and this is a technique that we use extensively in psychotherapy. Let’s assume I am preparing for a difficult conversation with a disgruntled team member.

ALISON BEARD: So this is someone who… The relationship has really gone off the rails. You know that they feel neglected.

GINKA TOEGEL:  Absolutely. So I would sit on one of those chairs and I would imagine that this individual is sitting in front of me on the other chair. So then I would literally articulate my views about our relationship. Once I finish, I’m physically going to switch places pretending now that I am the direct report to whom I have been talking. Now when I respond, I would kind of craft the message in a way in which I think my direct report is probably going to respond.

When you try to put yourself into the shoes of your direct report, your mind operates differently. You start looking at reality from the perspective of that individual. So this is the preparation stage.

Once we have the feeling that we have done a good job preparing for the conversation, we can move to the next stage, which would be engaging that individual in a conversation. Here it’s essential to start by minimizing the power differential. We need to acknowledge their rights to see things differently, to challenge and to disagree. And on the other side, it’s also important for the leader to acknowledge their responsibility in allowing a dysfunctional dynamic in a way to spiral.

It’s good to start this conversation with the kind of an opening statement which you have prepared in advance. And it could be something along the lines: “I have been thinking about my working relationships with our team members, and I sense that a couple of those relationships, including ours, are not as productive as they could be. I realized that I have contributed to that situation and I would like to improve both our relationship and the way I support you.”

And then there’s also the final stage, which is about shifting to a contracting discussion. In a nutshell, it’s about spelling out what’s critical for each member. Contracting reflects how we tick. People would share, for example, what upsets them. They would share or explain some behaviors so that their direct reports can read them more easily. It could be about personal goals, it could be about interactions.

To give you an example, let’s assume that the boss and the direct report would be contracting around pet peeves. And the boss is going to share with their direct report, “I hate being blindsided. If you can see you are going to miss deadlines or key deliverables, please do signal that early.” Obviously this is something very important for the manager and probably they have had some experience in the past where they were really disappointed and things didn’t go well. By sending this message, they are alerting their direct report that this is essential to them, and it’s highly likely that the direct report is going to keep this in mind.

ALISON BEARD: Have you seen cases in which a boss has had this type of conversation that you’re talking about and it’s resulted in sort of a turnaround in the relationship?

GINKA TOEGEL: Yes. It was an interesting case about a manager who learned from one of his peers that one of his direct reports was badmouthing him behind his back. And when his peer shared this with him, he was absolutely shocked. This direct report would sit quietly during meetings and wouldn’t say anything. But after this initial kind of wave of emotions, the manager started reflecting and came to the conclusion that actually he was part of the problem himself because he didn’t have the same chemistry with that direct report.

He wouldn’t pay sufficient attention to him. So he decided to clear the air. So he approached his direct report, but then he was taken aback because he was really snubbed and his direct report said, “No way I can work with you. And by the way, let me tell you I’m interviewing for a new job.” Unfortunately, that job did not materialize, which meant that the manager and the direct report had to create still a kind of productive relationship because the manager couldn’t fire this direct report since the performance remained satisfactory.

They went through those three steps and they managed to negotiate that the direct report would stop badmouthing the manager, and the manager on his side would help the direct report to transition to a new position. So the contracting had a significant impact in this case because it made it possible for the two sides to work together.

There is a point of no return. Relationships deteriorate, and if we miss the window of opportunity and they reach the tipping point, then this tipping point is basically the point of no return. Before the relationship goes off the rail, before it becomes irretrievable, we have to make sure that direct reports do not slide into this red zone. And that’s the reason why we encourage managers, first of all, to be aware of favoritism and its impact, to ask themselves those three questions on a weekly basis and to monitor also their behavior.

ALISON BEARD: What about the argument that the people who are in your out-group are people who should eventually move away from your team? And the people in your group are favorites because they’re really good team members, so it’s okay to make them feel special?

GINKA TOEGEL: Sometimes, yes. And we could have this case where direct reports deserve to be on the team, where direct reports deserve the visibility and the attention and the praise. But let’s not forget, we never know how good people are until we give them an assignment and until we test them. So here’s the danger that I see. When we have people in the out-group, we provide to them less feedback because we don’t trust them so much and because we don’t trust them so much, we also don’t assign to them interesting and challenging tasks.

In other words, we do not give them the opportunity, first of all, to demonstrate what they’re capable of, but also we don’t give them the opportunity to develop. It could be that at the beginning they are not as good as some of the current team members. But by not giving them the chance to develop, we miss the opportunity to develop them and maybe to add them to our in-group.

ALISON BEARD: And so we’ve been focusing on managers here, but if you see this happening as an employee and your boss isn’t aware of it at all, what should you do? I assume it is probably different if you’re in the in-group or the out-group. So maybe first tell me how, if I’m a favorite and I see my boss doing this, maybe I’m feeling some of that envy that you mentioned. What should I say?

GINKA TOEGEL: I had my personal experience because I was often the teacher’s pet, and I remember feeling incredibly uncomfortable with this position. Of course, when you are at school, you do not talk with your teacher about that. But being the favorite of your boss gives you also the opportunity to talk about it and maybe verbalize how you feel, but also the consequences for you personally in terms of envy, jealousy of the other team members. This better treatment, of course, is noticed by people around. Now, it’s more difficult for people who are in the out-group and anger and bitterness of course won’t help them.

Let’s remind ourselves, we know that the more people interact with each other, the higher the probability that they are going to discover similarities. And I’m going to encourage people here if they think they are part of the out-group of their manager to do a little bit more of disclosure. Talking about themselves, talking about their background, talking about their family, interest, experiences, etc.

The more they do it, the higher the probability that they’re going to click with their manager, and purely because they’re going to discover some commonalities. The second tactic focuses on the perception of competence. First of all, solicit feedback as much as possible. Maybe your boss is not providing you enough feedback, but you can proactively solicit feedback. Also, you can ask your boss, what can I do to set myself up for this project or for the next assignment? Also, preemptively inform your boss about your work. What have you accomplished? Your relationships with clients around… Inform your boss. We assume that our line managers know everything. They’re super busy people. And let’s not assume, let’s preemptively inform them.

Another idea is if you have a mentor, for example, to ask your mentor, what can I do to get noticed? And maybe your mentor is going to provide you with feedback that you seem to be a more introverted individual, and the way you sometimes behave might be perceived as kind of secretive. And based on this feedback, of course, you may change certain elements of your behavior, which might help you to get more easily noticed.

Or you can discuss with your coach, why am I overlooked? What are the favorites doing differently that I’m not doing? But what’s important is not to succumb to this emotional rollercoaster, feeling bitter and angry, and immediately start thinking about leaving the organization.

ALISON BEARD: Well, Ginka, thank you so much for joining me to talk about this. I really enjoyed the conversation and working with you and Jean-Louis on the article. I feel like it’s a problem, as I said, that everyone sees play out and so it’s nice to have some advice on how to fix it.

GINKA TOEGEL: Thank you very much for having me.

ALISON BEARD: That’s Ginka Toegel, professor at IMD Business School and co-author of the HBR article, Stop Playing Favorites.

And we have more episodes and more podcasts to help you manage your team, your organization and your career. Find them at HBR.org/podcasts or search HBR in Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you listen.

Thanks to our team, senior producer Mary Dew, associate producer Hannah Bates, audio product manager Ian Fox and senior production specialist Rob Eckhardt.

And thanks to you for listening to the HBR IdeaCast. We’ll be back with a new episode on Tuesday. I’m Alison Beard.

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