Here are two sentences you’ll never hear bosses say:
The first is, “I’m a terrible micromanager.”
The second is, “I really play favorites.”
We know these bosses exist – in abundance. But self-knowledge is rare to find, at least among the perpetrators.
Today, let’s talk about playing favorites – and I readily admit that I do that as well.
Playing favorites in life
Playing favorites is a good thing – but only outside of the workplace. For example, the other night I had a Zoom call with a bunch of favorites from high school, and I hadn’t laughed so hard in days. Every six weeks or so I gather with six of my favorites to discuss books we’ve read. Last weekend, I went to a minor league baseball game with one of my oldest favorites. It’s great in life to play favorites, and to have lots of them – because favorites are more commonly called “friends.” Friends make life richer, and they provide great company.
What makes us like these people? Often, it’s shared experience. We also like people who have a sense of humor, or because they appreciate ours. Or because we have a shared interest – a punk rock band, the New York Rangers, or the seafaring novels of Patrick O’Brian. Or because we like to do the same activities – hiking, going to plays, trying new Korean restaurants. Or someone becomes our favorite because we appreciate how they make us feel – loved, accepted, smart, attractive.
Favorites at work
But the workplace is different. The key difference is that there’s a formal power imbalance at work. There’s the boss, and there’s the person who reports to the boss. Unlike friendships, where people presumably enter the relationship as equals, in the workplace one person often has power over the other. This means that the staff member can earn points by flattering the boss, and the boss can buy added devotion by distributing favors to the staff member. Favorites can position themselves for advancement – and, frankly, it often works.
Meanwhile, the characteristics that make people good friends don’t necessarily make them good colleagues. It’s great if someone makes you laugh at work – humor does break the tension in meetings, after all – but humor’s not all that important if the person fails to produce the report you need on time, or bullies colleagues, or is indiscreet with confidential information. And what makes one person a favorite means that someone else is excluded. For example, if the boss and the staff member are both fans of the same indie band, that might help the two of them form a connection, but it excludes everyone who’s not. And often, these affinities correlate with being of the same race and gender, which makes the wall around the “in-group” even higher than it already was.
Then, there’s the matter of loyalty.
What’s not to like about loyalty?
I’m all for loyalty to an organization. In the world of nonprofits, where often the hours are long and the compensation marginal, organizational loyalty helps drive hard work, success, and smart decision-making. But if the loyalty is to a person, that’s a problem. When a staff member is blindly loyal to the boss, and the boss returns the favor by being blindly loyal to the staff member, then there’s no accountability or balance. And the question again needs to be asked: Who is the leader excluding from this conversation?
Let’s say Cindy is the CEO, and Bill is her favorite. Cindy (though she would never admit this) likes that Bill is easy to manage. He never challenges her and shamelessly compliments her for her leadership. Bill in turn likes that Cindy cuts him all sorts of slack: She excuses late reports, inconsistent attendance, and inaccuracies because, well, she likes Bill.
How does that make Jean – another staff member – feel? Jean works hard and takes great pride in her attention to detail, and she’s annoyed at Bill’s sloppy work and lazy thinking. Jean is trying to sound the alarm to Cindy that a particular organizational initiative is running into trouble. But Cindy is only listening to Bill, who says the initiative is going well, and who pooh-poohs Jean’s concerns. So the organization, instead of acknowledging and fixing the problem, lets it get worse. Jean is infuriated, alienated, and fed up. And she soon gives her notice.
At its worst, playing favorites undermines morale. Playing favorites drives good people away. Playing favorites rewards mediocrity.
I remember one disgusted former staff member describing the organization he had left. “There’s an agreement there: I don’t call you on your sh*t, and you don’t call me on mine.” Not exactly an inspiring organizational culture.
If I’ve seen this once, I’ve seen it a dozen times: A good CEO brought down by overreliance on favorites. The smart, creative, candid, independent thinkers leave; the mediocre stay; the mission drifts; the organization fails.
The solution to breaking this cycle begins with the CEO. I suggest that CEOs keep in mind that, yes, the job can be lonely, but that’s not a reason to pal up with people you feel most comfortable with at work. And if you do like some people on a personal level – and, as a human being, that’s natural and commendable – you need to resist the urge to translate that affection into promotions and power.
As CEO, you’ve been hired to make good decisions, and good decision-making requires open, inclusive dialogue, with input from many people. Scan the room at your leadership meetings. If people rarely disagree with you or challenge your decisions, then you’re either surrounding yourself with yes-people instead of a true leadership team, or you’ve created an atmosphere where people fear being cast out of favor if they dissent.
CEOs should work to earn the respect of their staff by making reasoned decisions based on what’s best for the organization, by modeling integrity and transparency, and by treating everyone fairly. Playing favorites wins you the loyalty of one or two people, but in the process you lose the respect of the rest of the staff. And once you’ve lost the staff, you’ve lost, period.
Copyright Alan Cantor 2022. All rights reserved.