The plot line of last week’s premier of the comedy The Crazy Ones on CBS portrayed the all-too-familiar game of playing favorites at the office. Although comical on screen, it’s an issue that plagues employees in real life.

According to a 2011 study from Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business:

  • 92% have observed favoritism in promotions  
  • 83%  believe that favoritism leads to poor decisions
  • 23% admitted to playing favorites themselves

Counter to conventional wisdom, a recent study out of the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business found that playing favorites may actually be a good thing. According to professor Karl Aquino, one of the study’s co-authors, not playing favorites “can be a disincentive for workers who would otherwise go above and beyond on behalf of the team with a little bit of extra attention.”

The researchers found that showing favoritism heightened self-esteem and enhanced task performance. There is no doubt that recognizing positive contributions can go a long way in ensuring those behaviors continue. The challenge for managers is making sure that favoritism doesn’t hurt the morale of those other team members who have yet to become the apple of their eye.

When managing the game of play favorites here are some things to keep in mind:

Focus on the Outcome. Play favorites for business reasons and not personal ones. It’s only natural to want to help our friends, but managing isn’t about giving your friends a leg up. The best way to test if you are making an emotional decision vs. an objective business decision is to look at outcomes. Ask yourself what you will get if you favor person ‘x’ over ‘y’ and how will this help the business?  

Be Thoughtful. Don’t flaunt your affinities. Workers can become unmotivated if they feel they are being treated unfair or don’t have any opportunity to advance. It’s natural to play favorites and people expect it, just don’t overdo it. Pay attention to the comments you make at meetings and the public attention you give to your favorites. Make sure you are not unfairly praising your favorites at the expense of others on the team.   

Be Transparent. Be clear about what it takes to become the apple of your eye by setting expectations. Successful managers know how to create a vision, set the destination and get their team onboard.

Be Mindful of What You Encourage. Role modeling is natural in the workplace, and younger team members may see your favorite employees as role models because of the status you have unwittingly bestowed upon them. This is why it’s important to make sure your favorites are favorites for the right reasons. If team members observe you rewarding counterproductive behaviors in your favorites they will likely start emulating those behaviors or at the very least they’ll become less motivated to engage in other more productive behaviors.        

Show Equal Opportunity Favoritism. When deciding to play favorites consider the larger ramifications. Who you single out says a lot about you and what you expect from your employees. It also sends a signal to upper management about you decision making and management style.  

It’s natural to like some people more than others, and it would be impractical to pretend otherwise. Emotional connections are a natural part of life and critical in business success. Just be sure you are thoughtful and strategic about how you play favorites because these emotional connections will drive business outcomes, whether intended or not.

Michael “Dr. Woody” Woodward, PhD is a CEC certified executive coach trained in organizational psychology. Dr. Woody is author of The YOU Plan: A 5-step Guide to Taking Charge of Your Career in the New Economy and the new on-line course The YOU Plan for Career Change on Udemy. Dr. Woody is the founder of Human Capital Integrated (HCI), a firm focused on management and leadership development. Dr. Woody also sits on the advisory board of the Florida International University Center for Leadership. Follow Dr. Woody on Twitter and Facebook.