Share this post with other Thoughtful Leaders!

Favourite Employee - Main

If you’re like many leaders, you have a favourite employee at work.

What’s your gut reaction to that statement?

Is it to strenuously deny it? Or to begrudgingly accept it? Or perhaps you don’t have any team members that you really like at all?

There is nothing wrong with having a favourite employee, unless it has an impact on the way you lead.

In this post, I’m going to take a look at the potential signs that you might favour a certain team member, and the impact that might have. Then, I’ll look at what you might do to stop this from being a problem.

What, I Can’t Even Have a Favourite Employee Now?

Some people reading this might feel annoyed that I’m raising this topic and dismiss it altogether.

After all, good employees are like gold. They make your life and work much easier.

They go over and above for you, and help to pull other team members into line. It could be that they role model the behaviours that you want to see and help to drive positive change in the team. They may also simply have a personality that you gel with more easily.

You might find yourself feeling frustrated that I would even raise this topic, because it may feel like I’m suggesting that you can’t develop close relationships with your team members.

But wait – I’m not talking about *good* employees. I’m talking about having a favourite employee.

Spotting the Warning Signs of Having a Favourite Employee

As I mentioned earlier, it’s great to have people you can rely on and who you trust. However, if this goes too far, I start to notice potential issues.

Here are some of the warning signs of having a favourite employee:

  • Spending too much time. If you find yourself spending more time with one team member than all the others, you may be playing favourites.
  • Confiding. When we develop a close relationship with a team member, we may confide in them, telling them things that they potentially should not be hearing. This could include confidential management or company information, or your opinions about other team members.
  • Listening to fewer opinions. When we have a favourite employee, we may pay attention to their suggestions more often. While you’re listening to them, you may not be hearing what others have to say.
  • The “2IC”. If you call a team member your “second in command” when this isn’t actually a formal part of their job description, you might have a favourite employee.

So what’s the big deal about all this? Let’s look at that part next.

Learn More:  Thoughtful Leader Podcast #228: Should You Be Friends With Your Team Members?

Potential Problems of the Favourite Employee

A favourite employee can be a trusted ally and confidant.

They can make you feel like you’re not “going it alone” and you have someone to talk to.

As a result, it can be challenging to try to pull back from this type of relationship.

However, it’s important that we don’t play favourites, and we manage to set good boundaries around our relationships with our team members.

Otherwise, here are some of the potential issues that might occur.

1. Freezing out other team members

One issue with having a favourite employee is that you tend to spend more time with them than other team members.

While you might not regard this as a problem, the other team members might.

There may be people in your team who would like to have greater opportunities to work and interact with you, or have more opportunities for development.

Ignorance is bliss - managing by exception

But when they see your time being taken up by your favourite team member, they may start to withdraw, because they know they’re not part of the “in group” or the “purple circle”.

In turn, you may regard their behaviour as evidence that they are disinterested or unmotivated, which reinforces your opinion that your favourite is better than the rest.

And guess what? It means that you’ll continue to spend more time with your favourite, and feel justified while you’re doing it.

2. Compromising integrity

Close relationships at work can be comforting and supportive, so it’s tempting to want to cultivate them.

However, it’s better if these relationships happen at the right level. For example, relationships with peers at the same level may be more appropriate.

When we have a favourite employee, we’re more likely to confide in them.

About the upcoming restructure, or the performance of other team members. In other words, about things that shouldn’t necessarily be their business.

A favourite employee provides you with this temptation. And the more temptation you have, the greater chance you may fall prey to it and compromise your integrity.

Learn More:  Why Even Good Leaders Can Show a Lack of Integrity.

3. Inappropriate influence

One of the biggest challenges I find with the favourite employee is the fact that they have more access to you than other people at the same level.

This means that they can get their ideas on the table and influence you more easily. This can become a big problem when they start to provide opinions about other team members, too.

In the worst cases, a favourite employee may spread false perceptions about other team members, to make themselves look good. When the manager is blind to this, they are much more likely to have their opinions influenced about the capability, integrity and motivation levels of other team members.

Influence People - Main

This can mean that the favourite employee has an opportunity to undermine other people in the team.

A recent example I came across was when a favourite team member continuously remarked about a colleague being off sick, in a seemingly innocent way. Over time, this made the manager feel as if the other team member couldn’t be relied upon to deliver, because they were often sick.

In reality, the team member had taken a recent sick day, but this certainly wasn’t out of the ordinary or repeated behaviour.

The motive of the favourite employee in this case was not clear. Was it to discredit the other team member? Or were they simply being honest?

Regardless, the additional opportunity to influence is a potential challenge that leaders need to watch out for.

4. Reputation damage

Lastly, managers who play favourites need to know that their reputation is being compromised.

Why? Because other people notice.

Other people notice that you spend more time with your favourite, or delegate them more interesting work. This can decrease your perceived credibility.

It decreased your credibility because people may believe that you are being influenced inappropriately by others. That the favourite employee has you “wrapped around their finger”.

This all translates to a perception of unfairness, weak leadership and a potential lack of opportunity for others in the team.

So What Should You Do If You Have a Favourite Employee?

If you find yourself in the position of having a favourite employee, here are some suggestions that may help you avoid some of the common pitfalls.

Difficult conversation - 2 women talking1. Monitor the time you spend. Pay attention to the time you spend with team members. You don’t need to spend equal time with everyone, but if there is a significant imbalance, this might be something that needs attention. Experiment with ways to spend more time with other team members.

2. Reduce the private discussions. One on one time is important for team members, and you should try to maintain this with all of them. However, if you find yourself spending more time in private discussion with one team member, then consciously make an effort to reduce this time.

3. Spread the opportunity. Pay attention to the opportunities provided within the team. This might be through training, improvement projects or delegating responsibility. Whatever the opportunity, provide team members with equal access wherever possible.

4. Set clear boundaries. Get clear on your boundaries with all of your employees. This includes topics that are out of bounds (such as opinions on other team members, restricted company information) and also the forums which are appropriate to engage in.

5. Recognise the potential for bias. If you find yourself with a favourite employee, be aware of the potential bias that it creates. If you have an awareness of the potential challenges this situation causes, you are less likely to be unduly influenced.

For example, you may be falling prey to the “Halo effect”, which means that when we rate one aspect of someone as being favourable, we tend to assume that they have other positive traits as well. In other words, we can become blind to the potential faults of a person.

6. Formalise it. If you have a favourite employee that you regard as a “2IC”, try to formalise it within their role definition, which will include appropriate pay for the extra duties. When your favourite employee is not being financially compensated for additional responsibility, they may consider their compensation to be greater influence or access to information instead.

It’s Hard to Avoid Playing Favourites

It can be hard to avoid playing favourites with your employees, because it feels good to have someone you can confide in and rely on.

However, you might find that other people aren’t stepping up because they think you have a favourite, and they have no chance.

Imagine what could happen if you spread the attention and opportunity across the team, instead of directing it at one person?

Do you have a favourite employee? How do you stop it from becoming an issue? Let me and all the thoughtful leaders know in the comments below!


Share this post with other Thoughtful Leaders!