Double standards and different rules

April 3, 2016 3coze

Susan sent in a great topic idea that she wanted me to address here on ChangeYourTeam—the all too common problem of double standards and different rules for the boss’ favorites. In her message, Susan shared a couple of examples of how this causes significant problems and asked if I could explore the issue. It’s worth covering this topic from a few different angles. I’ll start with the boss.

Picking favorites

In managing many people during my career, I’ve certainly had favorites. Even if I’m being hard on myself, I believe that some of the reasons that I was favorably inclined toward certain people were legitimate. When I think of individuals who were my favorites to work with, here are some of the common themes.

  1. The person always delivered. It’s very natural as a manager to be biased toward someone who gets the job done. You say it once and know that’s all it will take. In a frenetic work environment, it’s such a relief to know someone else will be there, sometimes into the wee hours, until the job is done.
  2. There’s no drama. Far too often as a manager you spend your time refereeing disagreements like a parent breaking up a sibling rivalry. When a team member has the emotional intelligence to manage their own relationships, you wish you could clone them!
  3. The person takes initiative. What a dream…the person who comes to you and says “we had a customer complaint” and in the same breath shows you a draft of an email he’s crafted in response. Yes!! Thank You! Thank you for getting the ball rolling; it saves so much time.
  4. The person has good judgment. Although it’s great to have an employee who takes initiative, it’s just as liberating when the person knows instinctively where they need to involve you. You don’t need eyes in the back of your head because you have the confidence of knowing the person will come to you if you should be involved.


At the same time, it’s very important to be on the lookout for less legitimate reasons why you might show favoritism toward one direct report. I’m sure I’ve been guilty of one or more of these at some point.

  1. The person is a personal friend. You spend more time with your coworkers than with your family, so it’s not strange or undesirable to make friendships at work. It is a problem if you have a different standard for people you’re friends with. Not only that, but avoid giving friends access to information and insight that others wouldn’t get.
  2. The person is similar to you. It’s long been documented that we tend to be biased toward people who are like us. Either they are like you now or they remind you of yourself at their stage. Those similarities can make you more empathetic, which is unfair to those without that advantage.
  3. The person holds power over you. Sometimes you manage a person who has significant clout in the organization. It’s tempting to give a free pass to someone who has influence because doing otherwise just invites hassle. Even if they do have connections to powerful people, you still need to manage them fairly.
  4. The person kisses your bottom. There are people who have mastered the fine art of ingratiation. They use flattery to win you over! Don’t fall for flattery. If the person actually thinks you’re a great boss, they’ll still think so when you set clear expectations, provide candid constructive feedback, and tie performance to consequences—just like all good managers do.

They feel the same

Unfortunately, it’s very difficult for members of your team to tell the difference between someone who is your favorite because they are a high performer and someone who is your favorite for less valid reasons. The result is the same: other team members feel less valuable and less valued. And they might very well be right.

You probably don’t give everyone the same opportunities. When you do provide opportunities, you might not give the non-favorites the same coaching or support. That makes them less likely to perform and ultimately becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy—one that leads to reduced engagement and lower productivity. That’s a costly impact.

Think carefully about each of your direct reports. Consider your judgments and biases about each of them and try to treat each person in a way that will help them to contribute their full value to your team.

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