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August 1, 2022

The right (and wrong) way to play favorites at the office

Daily Briefing

    Favoring some employees over others is often seen as something managers should avoid. But, writing for the Harvard Business Review, Haoying Xu, Jingzhou Pan, and Xiaotong Zheng say playing favorites in the right way can be beneficial for your employees.

    What the research says

    To research what effects playing favorites has on employees, Xu and colleagues conducted two studies on more than 500 full-time employees in China, the United States, and the United Kingdom.

    Using both survey responses and experimental data, the researchers found that how favored employees reacted to being the "boss's favorite" affected the reactions of their coworkers.

    Specifically, if the boss's favorite displayed hubristic pride—in which they attribute their achievements to their own innate qualities, such as saying "I have a strong relationship with my boss because I am always talented when it comes to interacting with leaders"—coworkers are more likely to display "malicious envy."

    This feeling then leads to destructive behaviors like insulting the boss's favorite, spreading rumors about them, or intentionally giving them incorrect or misleading information to impede their ability to do their job, the authors write.

    However, when the boss's favorite displayed authentic pride—in which they attribute their achievements to their specific work and effort—coworkers were more likely to display "benign envy," which leads them to engage in constructive behaviors, like learning from the boss's favorite or seeking out their advice.

    How employees and leaders should respond

    In light of this research, the authors write that employees who don't have strong relationships with their bosses should build their self-confidence and strengthen their relationship with the boss's favorite. Doing so will allow employees to "shift from viewing [the boss’s favorite] as a threat to seeing them as a resource for self-improvement," the authors write.

    Once an employee has embraced this attitude, they can begin observing the boss's favorite to determine exactly what that person does well and work toward doing the same, the authors write.

    For employees who are the boss's favorite, the authors note that it's important to ensure you're expressing authentic pride rather than hubristic pride. "This means recognizing your own achievements without exaggerating them, reflecting on the effort it took to build your relationship with your boss, and remembering that having a great relationship with your boss doesn't make you superior to your coworkers in other areas," they write.

    Meanwhile, managers should understand that, to an extent, playing favorites is unavoidable, and they should "work to ensure that [they're] still doing [their] best to build those relationships fairly and equitably," the authors write.

    Employees will be more likely to respond favorably if managers are building strong relationships with top performers rather than people they seem to like better, the authors write. Managers should also "work to cultivate compassion and empathy even for the employees who aren't their favorites" and "foster a culture of humility, both by modeling humble behavior themselves and by encouraging humility on their team."

    In addition, senior leaders should invest in programs and policies aimed at improving relationship dynamics among their teams, the authors write. Special training sessions on building relationships—in which favoritism is addressed openly—should be provided for managers. And employees should be provided with training on emotional intelligence, specifically regarding the expression of authentic rather than hubristic pride and how to manage envy.

    "Playing favorites can sometimes be extremely harmful—but our research shows that it doesn't have to be," the authors write. "With the right approach, employees, managers, and leaders can build an organizational culture that celebrates positive workplace relationships and gives everyone the tools they need to grow and succeed." (Xu et al., Harvard Business Review, 7/28)

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