Make no mistake, we have a deep and abiding fascination with favouritism. It starts in childhood and only deepens as we move into adulthood. And although we know it shouldn’t feature in the workplace, we also know that it does.
From a work perspective, what does this mean for us as leaders? How does our favouritism impact our ability to lead effectively? How does favouritism impact our reputation? And what about the favoured one?
I have worked closely with many CEOs and executives for over 25 years, and I can absolutely attest that favouritism is alive and well. Sometimes it is subtle, almost trivial in its application at work. Other times I have seen galling favouritism, with zero concern for the inevitable repercussions.
Favouritism at work (or elsewhere) causes jealousy, creates rumour and innuendo, and can erode a leader’s effectiveness and their ability to engender trust. The more senior the leader, the more powerful an impact this has on culture.
What is favouritism?
Favouritism is defined as “the practice of giving unfair preferential treatment to one person or group at the expense of another.”
Whilst it is human nature to have favourites, as leaders, it is critical that we actively try our best to reject any actions or behaviours that are seen as favouritism. The more senior you become, the more important it is that you are conscious of this. Ultimately, it is the leaders who are creating the organisational culture. So, if favouritism is a consistent feature of their leadership style, this will flow down through the business, diminishing trust in the process.
A culture of favouritism
A culture of favouritism can also be reframed as discrimination. “Favouritism is non-merit-based and can be considered illegal if it discriminates against a person or group or poses a legal risk for the organisation.”
Once you start to think of favouritism as discrimination, then it suddenly seems to take on a more serious note. It becomes something that has legal implications, as well as an impact on productivity and morale.
Both favouritism and discrimination don’t play fair and ultimately erode trust in the culture. And when it comes to trust, it always impacts the bottom line – teams that show high levels of trust perform better.
How can you spot favouritism?
Sometimes it is subtle, sometimes it is blatant. I have often found that it is usually a topic of conversation around the water cooler. And particularly if the favourite is less than worthy of their special status.
However, if you are not connected into the grapevine, there are still many ways to identify a culture where favouritism is thriving.:
- There is a “favourite” in mind for promotion well before the formal review process begins
- The leader spends more time talking with certain employees
- The leader has an open-door policy for certain employees more than others
- The leader uses their authority to cover up certain employees’ mistakes
- The leader allocates certain employees lighter or more interesting work
- The leader allocates certain employees more resources (budget, staff, technology)
- The leader praises certain employees more for their accomplishments – others do not get praised for similar or more impressive accomplishments
- The leader favours certain employees when making decisions or recommendations regarding promotions or pay
- The leader assigns desired tasks to certain employees
- The leader assists certain employees with career development and not others
- The leader gives certain employees performance evaluations that they do not deserve
- The leader gives certain employees more frequent and timelier feedback
- The leader lets certain employees get away with actions that other employees would be reprimanded for
- The leader considers the suggestions of only certain employees
- The leader reviews certain employees’ work more quickly than others’ work with similar priority levels
- The leader looks the other way when certain employees waste time
- The leader is more flexible in terms of absences (ex. tardiness, vacations, sickness) for certain employees and not others
- The leader sides with certain employees when conflicts at work arise
- The leader passes along important work-related information only to certain employees
Hopefully you noticed a common theme here. Every sign of favouritism starts with “the leader”. That is because in these examples, the leader is responsible for creating a culture where favouritism is thriving. So, good leadership means managing behaviours that might lead to favouritism.
To make this more real, let me provide an example of blatant favouritism that I witnessed first-hand. A male CEO that oversaw a group of companies started to have coffee catch ups on a regular basis with one of the female managers (not a direct report). Apparently, they formed a “book club” of sorts. However, there were only two members in said book club. More importantly, the female manager’s counterpart (who happened to be male) was never invited to the book club nor invited to have regular coffee dates with the CEO, despite having a significantly larger remit. This book club of two met on a regular basis and was well observed by many.
Of course, the optics of these catch ups proved to be less than ideal for both the CEO and the female manager, as they became the subject of salacious gossip. That, in itself, should have been enough warning. However, it was the level of opportunity, remuneration, discretionary bonuses, access to the board and praise that the CEO bestowed on the female manager that provided a bounty of favouritism indicators. The male counterpart was never provided the same opportunities, despite the significantly larger size of his responsibilities. That, my friends, is favouritism.
In this example, the impact on the culture was pervasive, as it was the CEO exhibiting such poor judgment. You cannot get more senior than the CEO – so if they exhibit favouritism, then all bets are off! Dr Ruchi Sinha, a senior lecturer in the school of management at the University of South Australia, says one of the critical effects of favouritism in the workplace is that it can break down trust because it is in direct conflict with values that workplaces espouse, such as equity or inclusion.
“Favouritism at work can destroy trust in organisations and leaders, and become a source of distress for employees, leading to low motivation and productivity loss,” she says. “Fundamentally, favouritism shows a disregard for competence and attributes such as dependability and reliability – all of which are signals of trust – while favouring personal friendships and instrumental reciprocity.”
What happens when the favourite falls?
Having highlighted the importance of the leader and their behaviours, what about the favourite? Although some may argue a case for the tall poppy syndrome here, let’s assume that the favourite is not necessarily a complete super star. They have simply been provided with more opportunity, more visibility, more rewards and more support than others, due to their relationship with the leader.
In some cases, I have seen the favourite use their power for good and facilitate more visibility for others. These are the exception, unfortunately. More often, I have seen the favourite jealously guard their status and happily reap the rewards that accompany it.
As you can imagine, when such a favourite falls, there is typically little sympathy or compassion. If I may, let me use a current example that is playing out on the global stage, to illustrate this. During Prince Andrew’s recent fall from grace, countless articles cited him as the “Queen’s favourite son”. It made his predicament and reckless use of his royal power and prestige all the more salacious. It was all far more interesting to know that the favourite one had been caught behaving (very) badly. Somehow, it made his banishment from Royal Life more satisfying. In some macabre way, his favourite status made his downfall more appealing.
There are many others that have enjoyed favourite status and then suffered greatly during their downfall. I think the key here is how you handle favourite status, if this is bestowed on you. Maintaining humility and helping others is important. “Be nice to people on your way up because you’ll meet them on your way down”.
Ways to weed out favouritism
In my opinion, you need to actively critique your own leadership and seek out feedback. You may not like what you hear but try to be open to how you can improve. If someone is courageous enough to provide you with feedback, listen!
A few ways to start include:
- Just because you may not gel with an individual, doesn’t mean that they are not competent. Be prepared to take risks and give opportunities to those that don’t immediately spring to mind. Critically looking at how you manage your team is important, to ensure that you give equal airtime and opportunity.
- Look at organisational network analysis – map out close ties between members and leaders and see who is being excluded and where the relationships exist, well beyond the organisation chart.
- Look at how you are allocating resources and time – are you always spending time with the same members of your team? What about those that have different views to you or different interests? Do you really encourage diversity of thought?
- Participate in unconscious bias training on a regular basis – this is not a one-off type of training. We all have deeply ingrained biases, and it is important to keep learning about those.
- Ask all of your team for input – not just those that you get along with, have drinks or coffee with, or play golf with!
- Seek the independent support of an executive coach. A coach can provide you with advice and guidance that is not impacted by politics or reporting lines.
In summary, favouritism can derail your best intentions as a leader. Left unchecked, it can breed resentment, create conflict and undermine the fundamentals of trust. It may not be the result of malicious intent, but the implications are significant and should not be underestimated.
Ps. The image used is from the film “The Favourite”, which is a brilliant period black comedy about two women vying to be the favourite of Queen Anne. It is a tale of ambition, manipulation, personal agenda, exploitation, rise in power and an illustration of what happens when the favourite falls. I highly recommend! Image credit: Fox Searchlight Pictures
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 Oxford dictionary definition of “favouritism”
 Dr Carys Chan, lecturer in organisational psychology at Griffith University.
 The ripple effects of favouritism in the workplace – HRM online
 Wilson Mizner, Playwright, Entrepreneur
I am not embarrassed to admit that I am a bit of a history nerd. And one of my all-time favourites is Queen Elizabeth I, who not only survived but went onto thrive as one of the greatest leaders of all time.
One of the remarkable things about Queen Elizabeth I are the many lessons she can teach us about leadership in the business sense. These lessons apply just as much today at work as they did back in the 1500s.
A former colleague in the US, without knowing my admiration of Elizabeth, once kindly gifted me a book “Elizabeth I CEO” by Alan Axelrod. This book is filled to the brim with stories of her leadership style, and it explores how we can take strategic lessons from her reign and apply these at work today. I have read it many times since gratefully receiving it.
There are countless sources of information available about Queen Elizabeth, as she continues to provide inspiration even today in the 21st century. After much consideration and ongoing research into her reign, I have compiled my top ten lessons for us to heed as leaders at work.
But first, here is a mega quick overview of her life before she became Queen, for those who don’t share my passion for history.
A quick history lesson to get you up to speed
Elizabeth was the only living child born to King Henry VIII and his second wife, Queen Anne Boleyn. King Henry is famous for having 6 wives, two of whom he had beheaded. One of those was Anne Boleyn for alleged crimes of treason and incest, but really it boiled down to her failure to provide a son for the King. Historically, the union between Henry and Anne was incredibly impactful, as it marked the start of the English reformation.
Elizabeth grew up with two half siblings – Princess Mary (daughter of Catherine of Aragon, Henry’s first wife) and Prince Edward (son of Jane Seymour, Henry’s third wife). Following King Henry’s death, Edward became king at the tender age of 9. He died at the age of 15 and for an exceedingly brief time (9 days to be exact), Lady Jane Grey ascended the throne. She was sadly a victim of politics and was executed on the order of Princess Mary, so that she could become the monarch.
Let’s face it, that is pretty full on for even the most robust of children! However, throughout all of this turmoil, Princess Elizabeth survived. She was held prisoner for much of her childhood, held to account for the “crimes” of her mother and often referred to as a bastard child. Not an easy start.
Upon Queen Mary’s death, Princess Elizabeth became queen. What she inherited was not what she left behind. When she was crowned in 1558, England was riddled with debt and crippled by politics and opposing religious views. It was a victim of itself and was considered to be at the bottom rung of European nations at that point. It was known as “this unhappy realm”. From a business perspective, it was a failing business in danger of a hostile takeover.
Under Elizabeth’s 45-year reign, England became one of the richest and most powerful nations in Europe and was on its way to becoming one of the greatest empires the world would ever know. So, how did she do it? What are some of the lessons we can learn from her approach to leadership?
1. Create a compelling vision
Elizabeth knew how to create a vision, communicate that effectively and then realise it. When she took the crown, most of her subjects were wary of another woman ruler, after bloody Mary’s disastrous reign.
Elizabeth deftly used statement and symbolic gestures to her people to make it very clear that she had a vision – she would return England to the path of both Protestant reformation, but also to greatness amongst its European peers.
She didn’t make any rash decisions. She worked with decisive patience and implemented change, whilst retaining enough of the past to ensure that her people felt comfortable.
2. Build an excellent team
Although Elizabeth was intelligent and well educated, she understood the power of perspectives and data. She carefully built a team around her to provide her with wise counsel. She kept the best people from the reigns of her predecessors (including some Catholics), but then added the best and brightest political and economic minds in England. This nicely engaged both Catholics and Protestants and helped to create inclusivity.
As a result, she was very well informed about the political, religious and economic landscape around her. Most importantly, she actually listened to these experts. There is absolutely no point in hiring experts to your team and then fail to utilise their skills and experience.
3. Be decisive and accountable
This was one of her greatest qualities in my view. There is nothing more frustrating than working for a leader who cannot make a decision – a lack of decisiveness is crippling. An even worse scenario is when you work for a leader who finally makes a decision and then backflips. Or blames others if it goes badly.
Elizabeth would consider the input from her team and then make decisive commands. She was bold and held herself accountable for those decisions. The buck stopped with her. Everyone knew it and respected her for it.
4. The power of image
The Protestant reformation was lacking a critical figure that was pivotal in Catholicism – the Blessed Virgin. Elizabeth deliberately chose to fill this void and presented herself as a blend of both Queen and the Blessed Virgin. Hence, she became known as “The Virgin Queen”.
This powerful image not only filled a void for her people, but also helped her to navigate the pressure to marry and produce an heir. It is quite remarkable that she managed to change her image with her subjects from bastard child to virgin queen.
Elizabeth understood that she was a powerful symbol and that she needed to send an unambiguous message. No leader of a business can afford to ignore their image and how they present themselves. The image of the leader becomes synonymous with the culture of the business.
5. Share the danger with your people
On the eve of the anticipated invasion by the troops of the Spanish Armada in 1588, Elizabeth appeared to speak to her troops, wearing the body armour of a cavalry officer. She did not talk about herself, her courage or her sense of duty. She spoke about her absolute trust in her people. This is significant and creates respect and loyalty.
Too often staff in an organisation watch the blood letting when things go wrong, and yet the leader continues on unscathed. Elizabeth was very clear to let her troops know that would not be the case and that she would share their fate that day. That is powerful stuff.
6. Communicate beyond words
Elizabeth was a powerful communicator, but not just with her well chosen words. She also understood the impact of her body language. She was very deliberate with how she engaged with her people and was very attentive to anyone that she was speaking to. She always conveyed the impression that anyone that she came into contact with was important to her.
She was well known for making and maintaining eye contact and for her attentive listening style. She would pay attention to all of her people, not just those at court. She made sure to travel and spend time with her subjects regularly, in a time when travel was less than comfortable or easy. She was known to make regular “progresses” for the hearts and allegiances of her subjects at least once a year. No sitting in the corner office for Elizabeth – she was out there meeting her people.
7. Moderation and a spirit of compromise
More than most leaders at that time in history, Elizabeth was motivated by moderation and compromise. She managed to skilfully navigate her way through the theological debate that she inherited and spent time building consensus. Consensus building leaders spend energy emphasising the areas of agreement rather than those of disagreement. To do this effectively, the leader needs to show how the areas of agreement vastly outweigh the areas of disagreement. In other words, focus and proportion.
8. Attack the problem not the person
Elizabeth was excellent at keeping her team focused on the issue at hand, rather than attacking individuals. There was no brow beating, no name calling, no raised voices. Instead, she would give a straightforward summary of the issue at hand, an explanation of the consequences of that issue and a specific and dramatic example. So, no threats but a firm and clear understanding of the consequences of failure. When Elizabeth would then issue orders, they would be executed effectively by her team.
9. Exclude no-one
Too many organisations freeze into an inner circle of decision makers who are defensive against the outer circle of the rest of the organisation. At best, this is a waste of resources. At worst, there is conflict between the inner and outer circles, which creates resentment and distrust.
Elizabeth had an inner circle of advisers, which was very deliberate in size. It was large enough to provide expert opinions on important issues, but small enough for her to manage debate. She had a very clear process around who was promoted into the inner circle, which she communicated effectively. However, she was also careful to not alienate the outer circle, providing they behave as “good and loving subjects”.
Elizabeth also made it her business to know everyone of power, influence or talent in her realm. She did not rely on hearsay but forged her own personal relationships.
10. Work on yourself
Elizabeth never stopped learning, even as Queen. She understood that knowledge is power and was focused on being able to speak with anyone on any intellectual topic, particularly political events. As a result, she spent three hours a day reading.
But her self-care went beyond the thirst for knowledge. Elizabeth was fit and especially loved horse riding, hunting, dancing and long, brisk walks. She was known to sometimes leave tense negotiations to go for a walk to calm her mind. Elizabeth seemed to understand that leadership is not about just the mind – it is also about your physical presence.
It was exceedingly difficult to curate a list of only 10 lessons, as I could easily write another 10 just about her courage, political nous, crisis management and attention to managing the financials. Without doubt, there is a reason that the world continues to have great fascination with her reign – she was an exceptional leader.
Ps. The image used is of Cate Blanchett, an Australian actress, from the 2007 film, “Elizabeth: The Golden Age”. This followed the 1998 film “Elizabeth”, which also starred Blanchett.Image credit: Cate Blanchett as Elizabeth I, IMDb 2007
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 Alan Axelrod, “Elizabeth I CEO”.
 Alan Axelrod, “Elizabeth I CEO”
Like most, the experience of living through the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting lockdown has been quite a revelation to me on many fronts. It has been intriguing to watch how the world has responded on a political, business and personal level. In many ways, our varied responses to this crisis are as fascinating as the pandemic.
As James Lane Allen once wrote, “Adversity does not build character, it reveals it.” I have found this to be entirely true as I have observed the world in crisis. We have seen remarkable leadership, kindness, creativity, compassion and inspiration as COVID-19 unfolded across the globe. In contrast, we have also seen some of the worst elements of human nature too – poor leadership, finger pointing, lying, hoarding and thinly veiled racism. All of this has played out around us, whilst so many lives have been lost.
Few consider the incredibly challenging aspects of management as they step into a promotion. One of these is the responsibility of “downsizing”. No matter how you slice and dice it, downsizing a team is a difficult task.
So, how do you approach this with professionalism and kindness, whilst achieving a well-considered result for the business? Importantly, how do you reach the right outcome without creating a lasting, negative impact on several lives in the process?
Sadly, I have been involved in more downsizing projects than I like to remember. From my perspective, there are definitely ways to minimise the angst – for both those directly impacted and their families, but also the “survivors” who are left in the organisation after the process has been completed.