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.”[1] 

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.”[2]

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.[3]    

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.[4]:

  • 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.”[5]

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[6] 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”[7].

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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?
  4. 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.
  5. Ask all of your team for input – not just those that you get along with, have drinks or coffee with, or play golf with!
  6. 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

Like what you have read? Feel free to share!

Follow me on Instagram: kyliesprott_professional and Twitter: @kyliesprott

[1] Oxford dictionary definition of “favouritism”

[2] Dr Carys Chan, lecturer in organisational psychology at Griffith University. 

[3] https://www.emerald.com/insight/content/doi/10.1108/13527590310493846/full/html

[4] https://www.niagarainstitute.com/blog/signs-of-favoritism-at-work

[5] The ripple effects of favouritism in the workplace – HRM online

[6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tall_poppy_syndrome

[7] Wilson Mizner, Playwright, Entrepreneur