As leaders, playing favorites is a quick way to destroy your team and lose trust. I've watched it happen countless times. If you're setting clear expectations and a clear direction then you've established the currency in which your team can effectively participate. Playing favorites introduces an exclusive type of currency that will quickly create divisions between the "haves" and the "have nots", causing moral to suffer and team members to disengage.
Early in my design career I took a job as a Web designer with a small in-house team. Within 2 years the creative director stepped down to start a family (this was not maternity leave mind you – she quit) and the senior designer stepped in to fill her shoes. Between the two of us we were designing and producing over 300 print projects a year (including full magazines, annual reports, countless brochures and fliers, etc) and managing several large Web sites. 6 months or so into the creative director position, my fellow designer was let go. We hired one part time designer, and I continued on with the same workload the following year.
Needless to say, I was burnt out. My pay had not increased and my workload had more than tripled.
I was excited one morning when my VP asked me to join him for lunch. I was sure that all of my hard work had finally paid off and I was going to get a much deserved raise ($28k was a joke, even back then). Two weeks prior I was named "Staff Member of the Year" and awarded a "Presidential Honor" for my innovative work on the Web.
My VP sat me down over deli sandwiches that afternoon and thanked me for all of my hard work and long hours, and then proceeded to tell me that he was going to rehire the creative director that had stepped down.
Although I was hurt, I wasn't all that surprised. He had always favored her in a way that I could never compete with (to this day, I’m convinced it has everything to do with gender). I had no access to the currency in play. No amount of hard work or excellence could have ever advanced my position.
Two months later I took a job 1,200 miles away, having learned a valuable leadership lesson.
As leaders, we have a responsibility to our teams to make sure the currency is fair. Here are 3 ways to spot favoritism and how you can put a stop to it.
1. Stop making excuses
If you find yourself making excuses for a team member who falls behind or has sub-par work, then you’re playing favorites.
2. Listen for envy
If you hear your team members make comments like "Steve can get away with that sort of thing, but I never could." then you know you’re playing favorites. If your team has picked up on your favoritism to this level of perception, then there is a good chance that they have already moved from envy to resentment – for both you and your favorite.
3. Watch the applause
If you find yourself carving out extra opportunity and praise for a team member, above and beyond the norm, then you’re playing favorites.
Favoritism sneaks up in many different forms ranging from personality to gender. It’s our jobs as leaders, to be on guard against it.