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Senior management plays favorites, displeasing group’s leader

“As a team leader and project manager, I pride myself on knowing the people on my team—who the high and low performers are and what their strengths and weaknesses are. I’m very unhappy with the way senior level management is playing favorites with certain people in my group without really getting to know them. In my view, some who are getting pulled out for special assignments should not be rewarded, while others who are highly capable, productive people are overlooked completely. How do you handle something like this? Is playing favorites ever a good idea?”

This must be a very frustrating situation to watch. You know your people; you know who’s producing and who isn’t and where the hidden talents are in your group. You are to be commended for taking the time to get to know your staff and recognizing what’s going on. 

Favoritism is one of the most common complaints in the workplace. Few people retire from a job without witnessing or experiencing favoritism of some kind. It’s a reality. But is it ever a good idea?

“Playing favorites is the exact opposite of what we teach in our leadership development programs,” says Joseph Carella, assistant dean of executive education at the Eller College of Management at the University of Arizona in Phoenix.

“Playing favorites without supporting business reasons is never a good idea. If some are more deserving than others, then this should be made explicit and transparent. In a competitive world in which leaders succeed through respect and trust, the unintended consequences are that true performers will ultimately leave to go work in places where real accomplishments are rewarded. Those who stay will end up poisoning the well, behave in a similar fashion and a culture of mistrust/poor performance will quickly set in,” he says.

But in an article in The Muse, author Katie Douthwaite Wolf called playing favorites a “necessary” management strategy.

“Doling out opportunities evenly across the board regardless of individual performance would be similar to a teacher assigning everyone in a class the same grade, no matter what they truly earned,” she notes. “It conveys that everyone is equal—and discourages the best performers from putting forth their best effort while conveying to the poor performers that you approve of their subpar work.”

But at the same time, she points out that playing favorites can be a terrible “morale killer.” A study by the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board noted that employees who believe their boss shows favoritism are less engaged on the job and more likely to start job-hunting.

“The key lies in good communication, separating your personal feelings from your professional responsibilities, and rewarding top performers with prime assignments while helping struggling team members reach their potential,” Wolf notes.

But managers playing favorites is a fact of life.

“It’s one of those things you cannot change. It’s inevitable,” says Aaron Schmookler, co-founder and trainer at a workplace training company in Seattle called The Yes Works.

You cannot change your senior managers’ approach to selecting favorites, he says.

“But you can change the information they have when making their selections,” he adds. “You can learn from senior management about what skills they’re looking for in the people they choose for these assignments. You can take action to make all your people more capable and productive in more areas. By changing your own perspective, you can gain greater understanding of senior decision-making, help them make the decisions for your firm and help your people grow and develop.”

Schmookler outlined key reasons why the people you consider to be less capable and productive might be getting the coveted assignments. One idea is that senior managers don’t know who’s capable and who’s not and they are choosing randomly (unlikely) or they may be using different criteria to assess who will be good for special assignments. In your case, an assessment might include revenue generated, deadlines met, lines of clean code generated per hour or some other digital metric, he says.

“But they may be looking for other qualities for these projects,” he says. “Someone who motivates others, has a helpful attitude, a winning disposition, ability to work and make relationships across departments that tear down silos.”

“Many people in business today—especially those in low and mid-level management—underestimate the importance of relationship skills. Don’t fall into that trap,” Schmookler says. “You’ll be doing a disservice to your career, to the careers of those you manage and to the organization you serve.”

There could be other aspects to this favoritism that you don’t know about, says Ilene Marcus, founder of a consulting firm, Aligned Workplace, and author of a book, “Managing Annoying People: 7 Proven Tactics to Maximize Team Performance.”  “Once designated a favorite, it’s an uphill battle to dethrone them,” she says. “It may be a moment-in-time connection, the boss was impressed or they may have had an opportunity to be useful on a professional or personal level and it’s being rewarded. They may also just know the right way to manage up and be noticed.”

Take a step back and think about your role and see whether you’re holding a grudge yourself. “Being treated with fairness and equity is a basic human driver. Everyone wants to be noticed and appreciated,” Marcus says. “The team leader should be brutally honest and ask, ‘does it just bother me or are other people truly aware and annoyed or aggravated by it? Do I notice it more as the manager or is

that obvious to everyone?”

It’s easy to give up and write the situation off as unfair, but the experts say there are steps you can take. You can, for example, ask senior management about their selection criteria and see if you can have input into selections for special assignments. “You can ask the senior manager what went into their decisions in a conversational manner to better understand the needs and the skill sets required,” Marcus says.

And make sure that you’re reporting to senior managers regularly about your team’s accomplishments in a one-on-one meeting and getting feedback. “In those meetings, tell your supervisor about the extraordinary contributions of your extraordinary people,” Schmookler says.

He suggests holding weekly one-on-one meetings with each of your team members to hear how things are going and tell them how their performance lines up with your expectations. 

“Encourage growth,” he says. “Notice, too, who’s making relationships work around the company. Give positive feedback there and value that capability.”

Here are some additional tips offered by David Dye, co-author of a book, “Winning Well: A Manager’s Guide to Getting Results—Without Losing Your Soul.”

 “When your executives play favorites and acknowledge your team members for the wrong behaviors or ignore quiet, but good performance, there are several things you can do to help,” he says.

 “Make it easy for them to get it right. Give them the relevant information. Prepare a bulleted list of your employees’ achievements and how those achievements impact the executive’s goals (make money, save money, time).”

 “Address negative behaviors by taking personal responsibility. “I noticed you thanked Bob for his work on the project. I should have let you know before, but I’ve actually had to talk with Bob about his work. Several times he has left critical deadlines to his teammates and they’ve had to carry his load. I will make sure to keep you aware of these issues in the future.”

Managers at Work is a monthly column exploring the issues and challenges facing managers. Contact Kathleen Driscoll with questions or comments by phone at (585)249-9295 or by e-mail at kadriscoll@aol.com.

2/3/2017 (c) 2017 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.


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