How Favouritism is Killing Your Productivity

Liane Davey
Feb 11, 2018 · 8 min read

Playing favourites is killing the productivity of your business.

In this article, I will:

  1. tell you how playing favourites is flushing away the productivity of a good chunk of your workforce;
  2. show you that playing favourites is totally natural;
  3. differentiate between good and not-so-good reasons to have favourites; and
  4. give you practical tips to limit the damage your favouritism inflicts on your business.

High performing employees are the life blood of a startup. So, you lavish your stars with praise, and access, and challenging assignments. All good…right?

Actually, no. Not good at all.

If you’re a trying to get your business going, you need everyone firing on all cylinders.

Playing favourites might be good for the A-players, but it quickly relegates everyone else to the benches. That triggers a self-fulfilling prophecy where the non-favourites live into your low expectations. That exacerbates your already uneven productivity.

And if you’re consoling yourself that at least you’re lavishing your attention on the right people, don’t fool yourself. Being your favourite isn’t all unicorns and rainbows either.

You’re probably giving your favourites an unfair share of the workload and a fast path to burnout. You’ve also earned them the ire of their colleagues and created some mistrust that will slow everything down. That’s stifling your productivity too.

Playing favourites is bad for productivity and harmful to employees. The only problem is that it’s totally natural.

Be Aware of Your Favourites

It is totally normal to have favorites. You’re human and you’re wired to form stronger bonds with some people that others. And there are great reasons why you come to respect and count on someone. Do you recognize these favourites?

1. The person who always delivers

It’s natural for a you to be biased toward someone who gets the job done. You say it once and know that’s all it will take. In the frenetic pace of a startup, it’s such a relief to know someone else will be there, sometimes into the wee hours, until the job is done.

2. The one who doesn’t do drama

Far too often as a manager you spend your time refereeing disagreements like a parent breaking up a sibling rivalry. When a team member has the emotional intelligence to manage their own relationships, you wish you could clone them!

3. The person who takes initiative

What a dream…the person who comes to you and says, “we had a customer complaint” and in the same breath shows you a draft of an email he’s crafted in response. Yes!! Thank You! Thank you for getting the ball rolling; it saves so much time.

4. The person who has good judgment

Although it’s great to have an employee who takes initiative, it’s just as liberating when the person knows instinctively where they need to involve you. You don’t need eyes in the back of your head because you have the confidence of knowing the person will come to you if you should be involved.

When you favour someone for legitimate reasons, make the link so others can learn from it.

At the same time, it’s very important to be on the lookout for less legitimate reasons why you might show favouritism toward one employee over another. These are the deadly forms favoritism you need to be on guard against.

1. The person is a personal friend

You spend more time with your coworkers than with your family, so it’s not strange or undesirable to make friendships at work. It is a problem if you have a different standard for people you’re friends with.

2. The person who is just like you

Science tells us that we tend to be biased toward people who are like us. Either they are like you now or they remind you of yourself at their stage. Those similarities can make you more empathetic, which is unfair to those without that advantage.

You’ll never get the benefit of diversity if you favour the people just like you.

3. The person holds power over you

Sometimes you manage a person who has significant clout that you don’t have. Maybe he has relationships with members of your Board, or maybe she’s an powerhouse with key people in the industry.

It’s tempting to give a free pass to someone who has influence because doing otherwise just invites hassle. Even if they do have connections to powerful people, you still need to manage them fairly.

4. The person who kisses your ass

There are people who have mastered the fine art of ingratiation. They use flattery to win you over! Don’t fall for flattery.

If the person actually thinks you’re a great boss, they’ll still think so when you set clear expectations, provide candid constructive feedback, and tie performance to consequences — just like all good managers do.

What it Looks Like For Employees

Unfortunately, it’s very difficult for members of your team to tell the difference between someone who is your favourite because they are a high performer and someone who is your favourite for less valid reasons.

The result is the same: other team members feel less valued and less valuable. And they might very well be right.

When some employees feel less valued, they become less engaged and less productive. That’s a costly impact.

You’re paying the people you don’t like, so it’s your money you're wasting if you don’t set them up to succeed.

Tips to Reduce the Negative Impact of Favourites

Keeping the playing field level is easier said than done. Here are a few bad habits you need to watch out for and some of the healthier choices that give everybody a fair shake.

Bad Habit #1: Giving favourites all the plum assignments

Although it might be completely fair to assign the most important tasks to the high performers, doing so accelerates their development and denies everyone else the growth opportunity.

You have a business to run, so I’m not advocating that you take your million dollar account and hand it over to someone with a spotty record, but you can be more aware of growth opportunities for everyone.

Healthy Alternative: Find assignments for everyone that will develop their skills and give them a chance to show you their stuff.

Bad Habit #2: Giving more information and insight to favourites

It’s natural, you will spend more time with the people you like and during that time, you’ll communicate valuable information. Your favourites will use the insight gleaned to do a better job.

The old saying “knowledge is power” is true and you significantly disadvantage everyone else by giving more information to your favorites.

Healthy Alternative: Make an effort to convey information to the whole team. Avoid one-on-one interactions with favourites where you share information that others can’t access.

Bad Habit #3: Investing more in coaching for favourites

You are invested in your favourites and cheering for them to be successful. As a result, you spend more time giving constructive feedback and coaching them to be successful.

You’ve made everyone else a second priority— they’re fine, but they’re never going to be a star. Nope, not with you as a boss they won’t! The people who are struggling to meet your expectations deserve your investment.

Healthy Alternative: Be candid about what everyone needs to do to succeed and cheer on their successes as much as you would your favourites’.

Bad Habit #4: Developing a deeper relationship with favourites

As you start admiring one of your team members, you tend to open up a different conversation. You learn about the person’s backstory: the family they grew up in, formative experiences from their youth, moments of truth, their proudest accomplishments and their fears and vulnerabilities.

Once you form a connection on that level, you’ll empathize with the person. You might even rationalize their mistakes or weaknesses in ways that pull the wool over your eyes.

Healthy Alternative: Create opportunities to get to know everyone. If you find out something interesting of a favourite, ask the same question of everyone.

Bad Habit #5: Falling victim to confirmation bias

Sadly, humans are much more comfortable being right than being wrong. You pay attention to the evidence that proves you’re right and mostly ignore or downplay the evidence that contradicts your initial evaluations.

When it comes to favouritism, you collect the evidence that shows how the favourite is exemplary and the evidence of how the non-favourite is sub-par. (And similarly, you are less likely to attend to information that is flattering to the non-favorite or unflattering to the favorite.)

Healthy Alternative: Balance your input by soliciting feedback on the team from more objective people. Look for disconfirming information (about favourites and non-favourites) from those who might be less biased.

Bad Habit #6: Giving away your favouritism in body language

It’s bad enough that your deliberate actions are demonstrating a bias in how you treat your team members, but sometimes your body language screams those biases without you saying a word.

You turn your shoulders toward your favorites and greet them with open, supportive body language. Periodically throughout the day you meet their gaze and give an encouraging smile.

If you’re honest, you realize that you are less likely to smile or even to make eye contact with those you don’t like as much. (Having had this realization once myself, I know how discomforting it is.)

Healthy Alternative: Make a conscious effort to provide the same encouragement to everyone. When someone speaks, turn your body to face them. When you feel yourself dropping eye contact, re-establish it with a smile.

Having favourites is unavoidable. Behaving in a way that disadvantages your non-favorites is not only unfair, disengaging, and demoralizing, it’s also doing a disservice to your team and your organization.

For the next little while, become hyper-aware of your favouritism and avoid these bad habits that are dooming people to fail. Remember, when they fail, your business does too.

I specialize in this and other messy, complicated human dynamics that affect your business’ ability to succeed. To read about and diagnose the dysfunctions that might be lurking in your company, download my free eBook: Toxic Teams.

This story is published in The Startup, Medium’s largest entrepreneurship publication followed by 295,232+ people.

Subscribe to receive our top stories here.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +538K people. Follow to join our community.

Liane Davey

Written by

NYT Bestselling Author, Keynote Speaker, Ph.D. Organizational Psychology, Conflict Doctor

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +538K people. Follow to join our community.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade