Sunday, February 16, 2014

Can an Effective Leader have Favourites?

John Reh wrote that “a manager who is fair does not play favorites. You don't give anyone all the good jobs, or all the bad jobs, just because of how you feel about them. You treat them as the unique individuals they are.” Where each decision you make can be justified by an individual’s position, experience and development needs.
It’s likely that in your leadership career people will have challenged you about some of the decisions you have made that looked like favouritism to them – at least if you’ve worked in a culture where people can challenge the reason for decisions that involve their peers; and where without the right communication a simple ‘choice’ of one person over another can be perceived as favouritism, when it actually isn’t – it’s just that the communication around the decision is either ineffective or missing completely.
One can approach the subject of favouritism from two perspectives. From a positive perspective, if you have recruited the right talent to your team and where you are involved with multifaceted projects and responsibilities that require you to optimise a range of results both in the short-term and into the future, then will need a range of talented individuals with differing specialist skills.
In this scenario the effective leader picks ‘favourites’ for a task based on the skill set and experience that they bring to that specific task or project – hence they are favourites for the role because they have the best skills to do this. In this type of structure ‘skills and experience’ drive the human resource choice about who does what at any point in time – where ‘position and personal relationships’ is subservient to skills. This is quite a modern and proactive way of leading – it can give the perception to those on the outside or those that are ‘title focused’ that the boss has favourites. But these favourites are based on skill and nothing else.
From a negative perspective you have the opposite where a ‘boss’ may have a previous personal relationship with an employee or just like them better – and where, even those these people have less skills or experience than others in the department or organisation, they are chosen to perform certain tasks for the boss; or chosen to go on trips with the boss before more deserving employees. This can be extremely demotivating for those involved and lead to a breakdown in the motivation and performance of others.
The leader is often too slow to see the short and long term damage this negative form of favouritism has on the organisation; and it actually isn’t healthy for the favourite either, firstly they can actually start to believe they are brighter and more experienced than they actually are; it can lead them to have further expectations in respect of ‘favours’ from the boss, to the extent that they can become quite arrogant, with a feeling of superiority towards those they have to work with. They are often blind to the impact this has on those around them – where some will get ‘close’ to them, but only hoping they will also become ‘favourable’; where others will either distance themselves or simply be distrusting of them going forward.
The impact this has on the organisation is huge and creates a dysfunctional, negative culture – which can go unseen until it is too late for the leader to resolve.
As Dr Anitha Ramachander states “most of the time, bosses are unaware that their behaviour affects the work environment. Their body language, tone of voice, facial expression could be read by employees. It is quite natural for bosses to have trusted lieutenants in the organisation but there should be a demarcation between trusting an individual and showing favouritism. The leaders of great organisations have special qualities and traits that make them outstanding. It clearly shows that those leaders do not favour any employee but recognise the hard work and performance based on productivity and performance of the employee.”   
As a leader once you lose the faith of those you lead then you create an unhealthy environment which is hard to turnaround without a change in leadership. So it’s worth thinking about how you approach you staff and ensure you do not support favouritism for any other reason than what’s best for the organisation.  

Ramachander, A. (2014). Dealing with favouritism at the workplace. The Deccan Herald, 15.02. [On-line]   
Reh, J.F. (2014). Fairness is Good Management.  [On-line:]

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