30 Nov

Why Leaders Should Play Favourites

by Jane Helbrecht in Leadership 0 comments

As a leader, if you’re not playing favourites, you’re missing an opportunity.  Favouritism can be your ally and can be a tool to lead effectively.

Now, a few disclaimers, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t provide leadership support to all employees. I’m not saying you should favour an employee because they’re your friend and I’m not saying you should treat anyone disrespectfully.  You have to favour people for the right reasons.  But many leaders are so afraid of being accused of playing favourites that they are missing out on an opportunity to lead more effectively.

Do you want to be the most effective leader you can be? Or do you want to be universally loved? Which is more important to you?

Every employee on your team is unique and has different needs and levels of commitment. Treating them all the exact same might be ‘fair’ but it’s not going to be effective. A leader only has so many hours in a day that they can devote to the employees on their team. So, as a leader, who do you invest your time on? The employee struggling to meet expectations? Or your superstar employee?  Spending time with your superstars has an immediate and significant return on investment.  Motivating and investing in your committed superstar employees is a multiplier in terms of the impact it has on productivity, creativity and problem solving.

When someone is complaining of favouritism, it better be the barely compliant, bad attitude, under performers complaining. If the committed members of your team are complaining of favouritism, you have a major problem. The problem is: we do often accidentally favour our non-compliant employees by letting them get away with things and not solving performance or conduct problems as quickly as we should.  When we let an employee off the hook for bad behaviour towards their co-workers, being a jerk or leaving early every day, who are we favouring?  And what are our committed employees taking away from that?

We also have to remember the 10/80/10 principle.  I heard Sunjay Nath speak about this at last year’s HRMAM conference. He spoke about focusing your energy and efforts on your highest yielding activities. By focusing your time and energy into your top 10 percent, the 80 percent in the middle start to gravitate towards the activities and behaviours of that top 10.  If we focus most of our time on the bottom 10, they start to slide down towards that non-compliant bottom 10 percent.

I’ve spoken to many leaders who receive 360 performance reviews and have sleepless nights because they received poor rankings from some of their employees. But I have to ask, which employees are giving you the lower ranking? Your committed superstars or your compliant under performers?  If it’s your compliant underperformers, yes, you might need to take some time to understand where they are coming from and understand what’s causing the rankings. But at the end of the day, I’ll take bad marks from compliant underperformers any day over complaints from my committed high performing team members.

Often leaders are at risk of ignoring their top performers because they can figure things out on their own and will do well even without significant time and energy from their leader.  But if we do that, we are missing out.

Talent and Commitment are multipliers.  The more time and energy we spend on our committed employees the more commitment and talent we are able to harness.

I can remember a conversation I had with a few girls at my first professional HR job out of university. Two girls were complaining about another girl on our team. They complained that our HR leader always gave her the best projects that were the most interesting, the most important and high profile. They complained that the HR leadership was always favouring her.  I remember looking at them and saying, ‘You know it’s because she’s awesome right? She does a stellar job. She does her work incredibly well and does an amazing job.  She does it better than we can so yeah they’re favouring her.’  My take away from that was, ‘wow, this girl is incredible and there is so much I can learn from her’.  Their take away? ‘She’s being favoured, this isn’t fair, basically I don’t have her skills or commitment level but I want what she has.’  In that case our leader was favouring the right person for the right reasons. She deserved the work she was assigned and did an amazing job.

Again, I’m not saying we should favour the employees we like more, or who we are better friends with, or who bring us donuts and coffee. And I’m not saying we shouldn’t do our due diligence and try and coach our underperformers and compliant staff to better performance and work towards gaining their commitment and buy in.  We know we need to support all our staff and ensure we are giving everyone the opportunity to succeed. Don’t be a jerk – favour for the right reasons.

But time is a limited resource, so ensure you use it wisely. And make sure that the time you spend coaching your compliant under-performers towards performance doesn’t come at the expense of time you spend with your committed talented superstars.

So I will ask you again, do you want to be the most effective leader you can be, or do you want to just be liked and avoid conflict at any cost? Because you can’t do both. The leaders that inspire, the leaders that are disruptive and change the game and build stellar teams? They play to their strengths and they favour their best.

See Jane’s talk on Why Leaders Should Play Favourites from Disrupt HR Winnipeg here:


Jane Helbrecht is a Partner at Acuity HR Solutions. She leads the training and development function with a focus on Acuity’s Intentional People Leadership training program. 

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