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Playing Favorites Good for Boss, If Not For You

We've all been there. The boss has a favorite, and you're not it. I remember a particularly painful time at a major corporation where he and I just didn't get along, and he invited everyone - including my closest friend -- to lunch, but not me.


I've always desperately wanted to be liked by everyone and this put me in a depression for weeks. But a new study says that it may be okay for a boss to have favorites.


Newswise.com reports that, as anyone who’s worked in an office, a factory, or any other workplace can attest, sometimes bosses play favorites. "Whether it’s assigning the most comfortable cubicles or the best parking spots, or deciding whose opinions take precedence during planning sessions, leaders inevitably wind up treating some employees better than others," the site says.


Seems unfair, right? But now, for the first time, research shows that in some cases, biased bosses get better results — and not just from the workers they treat best.


“For leaders, playing favorites isn’t always a bad thing,” newswise quotes Haoying (Howie) Xu, assistant professor of management at Stevens Institute of Technology. “Favoritism is a double-edged sword — it can be harmful to team dynamics, but in the right circumstances it can also help organizations to succeed.”


Xu and his colleagues studied more than 200 different teams, comprising over 1,100 employees, in several Chinese companies representing a cross-section of different industries. By surveying both employees and supervisors about performance and team dynamics, Xu was able to reveal the ways in which workplace favoritism interacts with other factors to elevate or impede overall team performance.


"In teams that were already well-structured, either because some employees were placed in positions of authority or because some employees had more advanced skill sets, performance dipped when leaders played favorites," according to newswise. In less clearly structured teams, however, having a biased boss typically somehow led to better outcomes, with improved coordination and performance across the entire team, unless you're not, like me, one of the preferred.


“That’s an important finding, because most previous research has focused solely on the negative impacts of workplace favoritism,” Xu notes. “Now, we’re getting a more nuanced view of the way that leadership biases play out in the real world.”


Drawing on a type of management science known as leader-member exchange (LMX) theory, which studies the relationships between supervisors and employees, Xu argues that leadership biases operate by sending signals about the relative status of different team-members. "That can be a bad thing: in teams where a social hierarchy already exists, favoritism can create dissonance and spark conflict," newswise notes.


In teams that lack a clear pecking order, however, a leader’s biases impose structure and help everyone to work together more effectively. If team members don’t already have well-differentiated roles based on levels of authority or particular skills, favoritism provides a framework that reduces conflict and increases efficiency by helping employees to establish a stable dynamic instead of simply butting heads with one another, according to newswise.


“In homogenous groups, playing favorites can be a way for leaders to clarify the roles that different team-members should play,” Xu explains. “When teams lack obvious hierarchies, it helps if the boss sends clear signals about who’s on top and who is expected to take a more subordinate role.”


“The key point is that playing favorites has clear positive and negative effects, so leaders need to ensure they’re paying attention to how their favoritism is affecting their team," Xu concludes.

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