Here’s a story I was told recently. You might have experienced something similar in your team.
“My teammate, Mary, is such a great person. She’s really nice, hard working, and a great contributor. Unfortunately, our team leader just doesn’t like her, at least not compared to her favorites. It shows in how the manager continually passes-over Mary for promotion, chooses not to send her to training, and just generally leaves her out. It’s also clear that the boss doesn’t relate to her as a person. She is constantly talking with people about their shared hobbies, but because Mary doesn’t share those interests, the boss excludes her from the conversation. She even points it out by saying in front of everyone “you wouldn’t get it.” The worst time was when the boss singled her out for her unhealthy lunch choices while the rest of us were eating salads.”
Imagine how excruciating this situation is for both Mary and for her teammate who was relating the story to me. Between the boss, Mary, and the teammate, there is lots of opportunity to change this situation for the better.
You have a really important role to play. Mary needs your support. It’s probably easier for you to give the team leader feedback than it is for Mary. Try “I’m concerned about how Mary is feeling. You chose us to go to the training session and not her. We’re always pointing out ways that Mary has different hobbies than the rest of us. I’m worried that Mary will feel left out. How could we make Mary feel like part of the team?”
Then role model what you’re talking about. Be vocal in recognizing when Mary does great work. Say “thank you” in team meetings for ways she has helped you or helped a customer. Ask publicly for her advice or support to show that you value it.
It’s also useful to make a personal connection with Mary. Even if you’re very different, try to find something that you do have in common. Maybe you both like science fiction, and you can loan her a book you really liked. If you can’t find something in common, another strategy is to call out some of what’s unique about Mary. “Mary, I heard that you have been working in the soup kitchen on Sunday’s. That’s amazing! What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned working there?”
Your efforts might give Mary the boost she needs to address the situation for herself.
Dear Misunderstood Mary:
You are in a very difficult situation. You like your job. You like your coworkers. You don’t want to leave. At the same time, if you’re not prepared to do something about the situation, you’ll continue to feel ostracized for the foreseeable future. I would encourage you to have a candid conversation with your manager. It is important to make the conversation about how the behavior is impacting you “when you single out the ways that I’m different from the rest of the team, it really affects me. I feel like I don’t belong. I worry that I’m not going to get the same opportunities and that it will hurt my career. What advice would give me to help improve our relationship?”
Dear Team Leader:
Please, stop and think about which team members you don’t have a natural inclination toward. How are you treating them differently? How is the impact of your behavior amplified because you’re the boss? What is the impact if members of your team feel excluded; both on them personally and on their work? As this story points out, the impact of your favoritism is felt by more people than you think.