Why It’s OK to Play Favorites at Work

Over the years in my role as a leader, I have often heard employees exclaim to me, “You play favorites!”  to which I have always replied, “Why, yes I do, would you like to be one?” 

Once their initial shock wears off, I go into more detail. While it is never appropriate to favor employees based on illegal or inappropriate biases such as our own vanity—wanting them to be the same as us, or the obvious inappropriate criteria pertaining to race, life preferences, physical abilities or religious affiliation—it is more than appropriate (and legal) to differentiate employees based upon the effort and value they lend to the organization’s ongoing success.

If this approach sounds a bit unorthodox, it’s probably because it is, but only at the expense of great results. You see, a great number of leaders have a tendency to pretend that all employees are created equal and are delivering equal results and value to the organization, when the reality is quite different. There are actually several different kinds of employees within any given office—each one very different from the next. Many employees in today’s workforce fall into one of the three following categories:

1. Resisters

Unfortunately, 20 percent of today’s workers live in a permanent state of resistance. Their worldview is that the universe is unsafe and that everyone is out to get them. They are skeptics and bring poor or ambivalent attitudes to their work and, subsequently, provide little value to the organization.

2. Maintainers

The other 60 percent of workers are in survival mode—I call it maintenance mode because they’re not being proactive or making constant improvements. Instead, they’re playing it safe. They get their work done, but they’re also counting down the days to the weekend. Your people in maintenance are not working against you—but their effort is often minimal and financially-driven.

3. Visionaries

Luckily, around 20 percent of workers in any given office are visionaries who are engaged, creative and present. These are the willing. They are personally accountable and look for opportunities everywhere. They look forward to coming to work and are your best people. They push for change and results.

For me, it’s simple. My “favorites” are those with vision who are willing to jump in, commit and say “yes” to the initiatives and direction of the organization.  By saying “yes,” they choose to buy in, engage freely, and are not resistant to change or the work at hand. For employees with this outlook, the sky’s the limit in terms of opportunity.

Once you consider the facts, it may seem like a no-brainer to make visionary employees your priority. But my research has found that, unfortunately, leaders and managers spend (on average) 80 extra hours each year thinking about and working with resistant employees. The average return on this hefty investment is, at most, 3 percent—not a great investment of your time. 

You see, if you focus your energy and attention on those who aren’t actively engaged, you are paying them to sabotage your plans. They will undoubtedly want attention, too, but you’ll have to teach them exactly how to get it. This is done by making an example of your visionaries. It’s OK to favor those who use their talents to work with, not against, your organization. Make it absolutely clear what gets attention from you, and your impressionable people in maintenance and resistance mode will start to go where the love is. When you work with a group of willing people—no matter how big or small—you will start to get results that make believers of others.

It’s important to keep in mind, however, that when given the chance to join the ranks of the willing, people will either join joyfully or not—and both decisions should be fine with you. It may mean that some team members will quit or look to other opportunities, but it will be the right employees making the change. And all the while, your most valuable people will remain happy and engaged and will get the credit they deserve.

As leaders, we must get very clear about what actions will create results for the organization and help propel our people to future success. Once we do that, it’s up to our teams to do the work and get the results needed to help them stand out from the crowd.

Check out 5 leadership clichés to ditch—now.


Cy Wakeman is a national keynote speaker, business consultant, New York Times best-selling author, blogger and trainer who has spent over 20 years cultivating a revolutionary, reality-based approach to leadership. For more on Cy, check out RealityBasedLeadership.com or follow her on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram.

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