Why the Best Leaders Don’t Have Favorites

22 Feb 2013 – By Stefani Yorges –

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Growing up, I was the “teacher’s pet” my fair share of times. So I know how it feels to be favored. I also know how it feels to have a supervisor dislike me.

Fresh out of graduate school, I arrived at the university for my first year of teaching psychology. I had barely settled in to my office when I sensed the disdain of the Chairperson of my department. But he barely knew me! He certainly knew little about my work, my interests, or my ability to connect with students in the classroom. Yet it was undeniable. I was getting the worst assignments, classroom locations, and teaching schedules.

A colleague also pulled me aside and pointed out that I was not getting access to many of the resources typically provided to junior faculty (grants, release time for research, etc.). What was going on here? I wondered, “What did I do wrong?”

As difficult as academic jobs are to find, I started to look around. Fortunately, he moved out of the position so I didn’t have to.

Leadership researchers have actually studied this phenomenon for years. They have found that leaders interact differently with each of their subordinates; they don’t treat them all the same.

The Leader-Member Exchange (LMX) theory focuses on the quality of that “exchange” relationship. Research confirms that leaders place subordinates into the ‘in group’ or the ‘out group’ very early and on the basis of surprisingly little information. Sometimes the choice is simply made based on similarity to personal characteristics – appearance, age, gender, and so forth. The decision is typically made within the first five days. And once you’ve been assigned, it’s nearly impossible to change.

  • The in-group clearly consists of the favorites. Observations in the workplace indicate that supervisors show special attention to this group. They talk to them more frequently (and about more personal topics), they are more concerned with their progress, and they place more trust in them. This group gets more mentoring and more privileges. They also get higher performance ratings.
  • The out-group gets far less attention, fewer favors, and less interaction in general. When leaders do communicate with members in this group, it is with a more directive and authoritative manner. Results suggest that these individuals end up less satisfied with their jobs and more likely to quit. This is unfortunate.

As a leader, your goal should be to have a high-quality relationship with every individual. Observe your own behavior – does it fit the patterns described above? If you’ve been playing favorites, try to resist this tendency. Strive to manage each exchange relationship so that no one is “out.”

It’s natural to give more attention to those that you feel connected with, as well as those who seem to put in extra effort. There will always be those who don’t relate well with others or perform to your standards. But don’t let that become an excuse to neglect them or ignore their development.

Ideally, as a positive leader and role model, you give everyone a chance to improve. You need them and they need you. You’re all playing for the same team after all. The goal is that by the time you leave that role, everyone is better off for having worked under your supervision.