Do you play favourites in your team? (Hint: the answer is probably YES)

Do you play favourites in your team? (Hint: the answer is probably YES)

Favouritism at work is annoying. We all know that playing favourites is socially unacceptable, not to mention unfair and frustrating for those not in favour. Yet, even knowing the negative effects of favouritism doesn't stop it from occurring in the work place. As leaders, we know how important inclusion is, yet pulling ourselves out of a relationship that we enjoy, we value and we find comfortable can be hard.

How does this happen? 

Many good leaders have favourites without realising it. Whilst it’s easy to assume that favouritism works primarily because one team member is better than the rest, and are therefore, more highly favoured, this is not always the case. In fact, I would argue the more subtle and unconscious favouritism seems to occur for one main reason: Similarity.

Working with many competent leaders, I’ve noticed that favouritism can easily arise out of friendship, liking or shared history – in short it’s about feeling comfortable with someone else. As humans, we are drawn to people who are most like us. We like people who are familiar or similar to us.

This might not mean that we are consciously favouring the person most like us, but it’s likely that as we are more comfortable with them, we exhibit behaviours that feel to others as favouritism: we refer to them more frequently or more noticeably, spend more time with them or give more air time to them in groups.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how you think you’re treating this person, it only matters how others in the team perceive you to be treating this person. Favouritism can be a feeling, as much as a fact.

5 ways to create favouritism 

Here are some examples of common behaviours that create a feeling of favouritism.

  1. Time – We spend more time with one person over others, even if we need to
  2. Agreement – We listen to all voices, yet we tend to agree more often with one
  3. History – We have shared history with one person, that others are not a part of
  4. Topics – We engage in more small talk about shared interests with one person over others
  5. Laughter – We lighten up around one person and remain business-like with others

The key to this list (after realising the full list could be as long as your arm), is to remember that it’s not about truth, it’s about perception. It doesn’t matter if you spend more time with one person more than others, because you like them, because you need them or because you’re forced to – it only matters that the constant proximity creates opportunities for this one person, that are not available to the rest. And the ‘rest’ notice it.

Why do we have favourites?

If favouritism is not something we set out to intentionally create in our teams, then how do we find ourselves with this problem?

When working with executives and their teams, I’ve noticed that the similarity element creates a bond that gives comfort to a leader. It can be lonely at the top. It can be nice to have someone to bounce ideas off. Someone to give you hard feedback when it’s needed; someone you like, respect and trust. Leaders find themselves creating a partnership with one person in the team without even realising it. It can be hard to notice the subtle pull of likability, common ground and growing familiarity, especially if you’re not watching out for it.

How do we avoid the perception of favourites?

Fairness is about equal attention and opportunity. The issue with unintentional favouritism, is that it is hard to recognise when we are doing it. It’s not that we don’t know how to be fair with our teams, it’s that we don’t realise how quickly minor and innocent inequities can quickly build up a perception of exclusion.

We need to get present to our own behaviours and question our motives and interactions. Who are we drawn to and why? How are we behaving with different team members and how might that be perceived? Who do we spend time with and what message does that send? Put yourself in other team members’ shoes and ask yourself, ‘Does this feel fair? Would I like this done to me?’

Playing favourites may not be your intention, but with perception steering the ship, it could be the reality. As leaders, we need to make a conscious effort to include all our people. We need to spend time equally, engage with those we may not get along with, and ensure all our people feel heard, valued and included. It’s easy enough to do, once we realise we need to do it.

'Til next time