Playing favorites gets a bad rap — but it isn't necessarily destructive, according to new research. While bosses should generally avoid unfair, demotivating practices such as giving preferable assignments, promotions, or other rewards to employees whom they like better, new research by Stevens Institute of Technology suggests that when managed correctly, biased bosses get better results — and not just from the workers they treat best.
“The key point is that playing favorite has clear positive and negative effects, so leaders need to ensure they’re paying attention to how their favoritism is affecting their team."Howie Xu
Workplace favoritism is a double-edged sword
The findings of the study, which was published in December in the peer-reviewed journal Personnel Psychology, show that favoritism is a double-edged sword.
“For leaders, playing favorites isn’t always a bad thing,” said researcher Haoying (Howie) Xu.
"It can be harmful to team dynamics, but in the right circumstances it can also help organizations to succeed.”
To reach this conclusion, researchers 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. In less clearly structured teams, however, the research found that having a biased boss typically led to better outcomes, with improved coordination and performance across the entire team.
“That’s an important finding, because most previous research has focused solely on the negative impacts of workplace favoritism,” Xu said. “Now, we’re getting a more nuanced view of the way that leadership biases play out in the real world.”
Xu noted a branch of management science known as leader-member exchange (LMX) theory, which studies the relationships between supervisors and employees. He said that leadership biases operate by sending signals about the relative status of different team members, which can be a bad thing: In teams where a social hierarchy already exists, favoritism can create dissonance and conflict.
On the other hand, in teams that lack a clear chain of command, 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, the study says.
“The key point is that playing favorite has clear positive and negative effects, so leaders need to ensure they’re paying attention to how their favoritism is affecting their team," Xu said.