Favoritism? Not Me!

Dr. Chris E. Stout
July 19, 2011 — 2,796 views  
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I know, I know, not you. But let’s stop for a moment and do a quick assessment. How do you go about seeing your blind-spots? By definition, you can’t. So, when was the last time you asked someone whose opinion you trusted and who would be in a position to know, “Do you think I ever show any partiality to some of my staff (or worse, any bias against someone)?” 

You may think doing so hasn’t been necessary, but what if it is one of those blind-spots, and you are wrong? If so, or if just the appearance or perception of partiality is the case, it can create a malignant set of problems that can range from poor morale, low productivity and a lack of teamwork, to finding yourself quite baffled to be in a lawsuit.  
How does it look to others?

Keep in mind, sometimes reality and perceptions may be vastly different.  You may not be playing favorites at all, but it may look like it to others in your department, team or office. Put yourself in the place of others and consider your actions and treatment of your staff. Would they all consider you fair and impartial?  If so, bravo! You are doing things the right way.

If you think there is a misperception of partiality , consider calling your staff together in a comfortable manner to discuss what you see, solicit feedback from others regarding what they see, share what has gone into your decisions that may be misconstrued as being preferential and work to clear the air.  Be careful not to come across as defensive or rationalizing. You may want to run your perspectives by a trusted peer first for feedback and other ideas. Be prepared to engage in this type of a discussion whenever it is needed.
But what if I do have favorites?

Consider why you may have a favorite. There could be very good reasons: The employee is bright, hardworking, a role model for the others, inventive, etc. You’d love to have 10 more like her or him. So, you work hard to motivate and reward such good work with perks, more of your attention, the coveted jobs or contracts.  What good manager wouldn’t? You sure don’t want to lose her/him to the competition, so may be you flex the rules and cut a corner here or there. It sounds great, and it probably works, too. But unless you only have one employee, you also may be inadvertently setting up a situation in which other employees come to resent the favored employee and you as well.

They may become poorly motivated to do their best if they feel it won’t be noticed. Or they may become passive aggressive towards you, their coworkers and/or customers. For some, this may then evolve into hostile feelings of resentment, poor morale and the loss of staff who, under better circumstances, also could have been stars. So, what’s a manager to do?

Seek frank feedback from someone you know and trust, and who is in a position to be able to recognize any patterns that look like favoritism, whether intentional or not, because it does not matter. If this person does see something that needs your attention, get very specific feedback in order to address the problem.

How frequently does it seem to occur, and under what circumstances? Is there a pattern of this behavior with certain employees (such as a certain sex, race, background; e.g., only white males from the same college as the manager get promotions or perks). Could the actions also be considered sexual harassment? (Be aware there is a risk that if you cease showing favoritism toward an employee, the employee may then feel wronged and may file a lawsuit or complaint. If there is a risk of this, share it with your superiors and with their guidance consider whether to seek counsel from legal professionals on how to best manage such a situation.)

Be empathetic. Empathy can serve as an early warning system for risks posed by real or perceived favoritism in your ranks. Put yourself in the position of each of your staff when someone has gotten kudos for a job well done. Does it help to motivate them as well or make them jealous? It’s your job to make sure that it is the former, not the latter.

Foster healthy competition.  Consider the fact that while you and your employees are on the same team, competition is still a factor within your office as well. Most people want to advance their careers as quickly as they can, so consider what you do in the context of fairness as well as their competitive spirit. You want to foster healthy motivation to do well versus becoming cut-throat.

Be crystal clear as to your expectations and don’t think that doing it just once will be enough.

Presume the worst. And act to counteract any corrosive misperceptions of your well-intended actions with non-defensive explanations. Better, yet, make sure everyone knows in advance what you expect from their performance, and what they can expect in return from you, consistently and demonstrably based solely upon their performance.

Maintain equal expectations of all staff that have equal duties. Likewise, reward with equally across like situations.

Be respectful of everyone’s contributions and efforts. Let them know it unequivocally and let all know it unequivocally.

Dr. Chris E. Stout

ATI Physical Therapy

Dr. Stout is a licensed clinical psychologist and serves as ATI/PRO's Director of Research and Development. He also is a Clinical Professor in the College of Medicine at the University of Illinois, Chicago, holds an academic appointment in the Northwestern University Feinberg Medical School, and was a Visiting Professor in the Department of Health Systems Management at Rush University. He was appointed by the Secretary of the US Department of Commerce to the Board of Examiners for the Baldrige National Quality Award. He holds the distinction of being one of only 100 world-wide leaders appointed to the World Economic Forum's Global Leaders of Tomorrow. Dr. Stout has published or presented over 300 papers and 30 books. He has lectured across the nation and internationally in 19 countries, and visited 6 continents and over 75 countries. He is frequently interviewed (e.g., CNBC, CNN, NBC, PBS, NPR, Oprah, Eye On Harvard, Time, Chicago Tribune, The Wall Street Journal, New York Times, USA Today, Associated Press, Child Magazine, Chicago Sun-Times...).