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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Management

How to Play Favorites With Your Employees—the Right Way

As a manager, playing favorites is a double-edged sword.

On one side, playing favorites can be a necessary management strategy. Doling out opportunities evenly across the board regardless of individual performance would be similar to a teacher assigning everyone in a class the same grade, no matter what they truly earned. It conveys that everyone is equal—and discourages the best performers from putting forth their best effort while conveying to the poor performers that you approve of their subpar work.

At the same time, obviously and constantly favoring some employees over others can be a big morale killer. According to the Merit Systems Protection Board, employees who believe their boss shows favoritism are less engaged and more likely to consider looking elsewhere for another job.

The key lies in good communication, separating your personal feelings from your professional responsibilities, and rewarding top performers with prime assignments while helping struggling team members reach their potential.

If you’re worried you might be playing favorites to the detriment of you and your team, start by asking yourself these three questions:

Do You Explain Your Assignment Decisions Clearly?

If you’re delegating a project that requires sharp analytical skills, it makes perfect sense to give it to one of your best employees—who has a track record of proven success when it comes to analytical thinking.

But if your other employees don’t know the reason for your selection—and instead, assume you’re delegating to that person simply because you like him or her best—you may encounter trouble.

It may not be reasonable to explain your every move, but if you suspect a decision could come across as favoritism, it’s a good idea to mention the project during a team meeting: “Just so everyone knows, I’ve put Alex in charge of making some key decisions about our sales plan for the next quarter, since he’s been consistently exceeding his sales quotas for the past few months and has a lot of knowledge to bring to the table.”

In that quick disclaimer, you’ve explained the why of your decision—as well as hint at what other employees may be able to do to get a similar assignment.

Are You Spending an Unfair Amount of Time with Select Employees?

It’s natural that you’re going to be drawn to some employees over others. This may be especially true with your top performers. Because you’ll likely assign them special projects based on their past performance and exemplary skills, you’ll want that extra time to review how the work is going, make sure they’re succeeding, and answer any questions they have.

But be careful what that conveys to other team members. If you’re constantly having impromptu one-on-one chats with some people, but fail to schedule any time with others, there may be favoritism at play.

You may not be able to divide your time perfectly evenly, but it’s important to spend quality time with each employee on your team—discussing goals, strengths, and areas for improvement.

Do You Help Your Low Performers Set Goals?

It’s one thing to give special assignments to employees who deserve them. But it’s another thing to refuse to give those kinds of tasks to low performers because they don’t deserve them—at least, if you’re not doing anything to help them get where they need to be.

You can do this as part of the one-on-one meetings you should be having with every member of your team. For example, try asking: “Is there anything you’d like to do more or less of?” or “What do you see yourself doing within the team in six months?”

You may find that some of your team members want those special projects you’ve been giving your top performers. And if you’re not assigning those projects to them, there’s probably a reason. But to avoid playing favorites, you have to put the ball in their court by helping them set goals that can get them to the place they want to be (and get the assignments they want to work on).

As you can see, playing favorites in moderation is okay—as long as it’s based on merit, rather than personal feelings. The thing to keep in mind, however, is that your goal as a manager should be to get all your employees to that favorite-employee status; to the point where everyone feels challenged, excited about their work, and fully utilized as a valuable member of your team.

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