Why It’s (Sometimes) OK for the Boss to Play Favorites

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It can be really motivating and gratifying to know that a manager will actually recognize an employee’s hard work, and update their relationship accordingly.

It is managers’ natural tendency to pick favorites. In the seventh season of The Office, for example, the new manager Deangelo Vickers intentionally picked favorites among the staff and referred to these employees as his small “inner circle.” Most of the time, people view this unfavorably. It seems to violate the principle of equality. But what if by playing favorites, a manager can benefit their team? Our new research, published in Personnel Psychology, suggests this can actually happen, and can help managers decide when playing favorites might pay off—and when it won’t.

When managers play favorites, they socially rank team members based on the quality of the relationships they have with each one, as well as the resources and respect that each member may provide them. This can be both good and bad—it can foster coordination but also spur conflict, with employees making disruptive social comparisons. So how can you know when to play favorites?

Previous research has suggested that the manner in which managers play favorites matters, but we found what may play a more crucial role is the type of team that the manager supervises. In our studies, which involved more than 200 different teams, comprising over 1,100 employees in several Chinese companies representing a cross-section of different industries, we found that having a boss who plays favorites would lead to a drop of team performance in teams that were already well-structured. However, what is striking is that having such a boss can lead to better results in less clearly structured teams. 

Here is how this happens. When people on a team have skills and expertise that don’t overlap, they become highly susceptible to interpersonal conflict. In The Office’s Scranton branch of the Dunder Mifflin Paper Company, employees take different functional positions, such as the co-manager, assistant to the regional manager, salesman, receptionist, and accounting staff. As these functional positions involve distinct job duties and tasks, the employees in the branch are required to have unique skills and expertise. 

For example, the salesman is required to have great communication and interactions skills; they also need to have stronger knowledge about clients. The accounting staff do not need to have excellent communications skills, but they must have solid knowledge of accounting practices, strong ability to prepare financial statements, and so on. In general, due to their non-overlapping skills and expertise, these people tend to see an issue differently, and so will often propose conflicting opinions or solutions. This happened in the very first episode of The Office when the team was faced with layoffs. The staff in different positions may have different opinions about which functional area has to lay off employees. 

What’s more, coming from different backgrounds (e.g., different educational background), they tend to lack trust toward each other and tend to not be accepting of each other’s viewpoints. Therefore, it is tough for them to reach common ground, which further precipitates serious relational conflicts. That’s why playing favorites in a situation like this can intensify team tension, which harms performance. Indeed, when Vickers plays favorites, the relationships among staff become more intense. 

That’s where the bad rap of playing favorites comes from. But when the situation is different, playing favorites can foster effective cooperation. When team members possess similar decision-making responsibilities or overlapping expertise based on functional background, education, and skills—and so aren’t that clear about their unique team roles—playing favorites can enhance team performance. This is because it clarifies the sort of decision-making and functional responsibilities team members have. For example, the leader typically delegates more important decision-making and more challenging tasks to their favorite employees, and less important decision making and less challenging tasks to their disliked employees. 

This can be seen in many Chinese family-own companies. Before the structure and governance system were developed and formalized, the business owner tended to favor their family members (instead of non-family members) and appoint them to lead the projects that are of great importance to the company. Of course, the benefits of playing favorites can be generalized to many other less-structured and homogenous teams (e.g., crews, fully cross-trained teams). Yet, despite the benefits, to avoid people taking things the wrong way, managers in these teams should explain what’s going on, and how playing favorites ultimately helps everyone.

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For example, from the get-go, leaders should be candid with their employees about how their time and energy, financial budget, and development opportunities are limited, which means that they’ll be distributing more resources to more competent employees, and less to the others. These communications should happen in a formal, one-on-one meeting where employees can have opportunities to express their concerns or ask for clarification. Leaders would be wise to reassure employees who raise concerns about this way of operating that anyone can become the favored employee. It’s all about competence and performance. Once employees understand a leader’s intention of playing favorites and accept this management practice, the leader can then be explicit about who is their “favorite” employee by involving these employees in important decision-making, assigning them important roles such as leaders of various team projects, and having their back when they face intractable challenges.

It can also help to point out some other upsides of playing favorites, like creating an incentive for employees to improve their skills. It can be really motivating and gratifying to know that a manager will actually recognize an employee’s hard work, and update their relationship accordingly. But it’s important to remember that playing favorites even in this careful way likely won’t work when employees on a team have different areas of competence and responsibility. In these teams, managers need to recognize the value of each skill set team members have, and rely on these to guide the division of labor and team coordination. 

Given the risks, it makes sense for organizations to train managers on when they should and should not play favorites. This should definitely include, among other things, a discussion of the harms of favoring team members based on personal liking or other ties unrelated to work. 

In situations where playing favorites will enhance team performance, employees who aren’t feeling favor from their manager should try their best to understand the managers’ practices, along with the good intention behind the practice. These employees should take advantage of every chance to impress their boss (e.g., being the first to respond to the leader’s email or request, providing regular updates on project progress). 

Playing favorites is a double-edged sword. While it can sometimes be extremely harmful, we should also see and take advantage of its value in enhancing team performance. It’s possible for organizations, managers, and employees to avoid the potential downsides of this management approach and enjoy its benefits. 

Haoying (Howie) Xu is an assistant professor of management in the School of Business at Stevens Institute of Technology. 

Sandy J. Wayne is professor of management, the interim Dean, and the Director of the Institute for Leadership Excellence and Development (iLEAD) in the Department of Managerial Studies at the University of Illinois Chicago. 

Linda C. Wang is an assistant professor of management at the Hang Seng University of Hong Kong. 

Jingzhou Pan is an associate professor of organizational behavior and human resource management in the College of Management and Economics at Tianjin University (China). 

Lead image: The Office / YouTube