Does Everybody Win When Managers Play Favorites?

Recent research suggests giving standout employees preferential treatment helps build top-performing teams. Managers and HR should take note, however: this approach requires striking a delicate balance in order to keep all your employees happy and productive.  

Monday, February 25, 2013
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In sports-speak, "fair but not equal" is an old axiom coaches use to explain the way standout players are sometimes treated in comparison to their less-productive teammates.

For example, the shooting guard averaging 24 points a game may be more likely to avoid discipline for missing team curfew than the end-of-the-bench reserve who came in late from the same party.  

Fair? That's debatable. But the justification is that the high-scoring guard's value to the team is ultimately greater; that his presence in the lineup is integral to the squad remaining competitive. Thus, he is occasionally afforded certain liberties that other players are not.

The same concept is easily applied to the workplace. In fact, a recent study suggests that treating star employees preferentially may actually help build top-performing teams. 

In a series of experiments, University of British Columbia Sauder School of Business researchers found participants -- when treated relatively better than in their group by a leader -- were more likely to experience heightened self-esteem, follow workplace norms and perform tasks that benefitted their group.

The study, Satisfying Individual Desires or Moral Standards? Preferential Treatment and Group Members' Self-Worth, Affect, and Behavior, surveyed 357 people online to assess their level of preferential treatment in the workplace. Workers were also asked to nominate colleagues to take part in a second survey to discuss whether the employee "violated norms of efficient production and considerate conduct," according to study authors.

Respondents who said they received superior treatment from their bosses reported feeling "a greater sense of self-worth in their jobs," while their colleagues determined this group behaved less anti-socially and more productively at work.

In another experiment, a sample of 41 students was split into groups of three and asked to provide suggestions to a "team leader" for improving education at the university, according to study authors. Participants received a group reply from their leader, which included itemized responses to all suggestions. In half of the groups, all recipients received the same email response, which showed them preferential treatment in comparison to their peers. The other half received responses showing positive but equal respect for all of the participants' suggestions. In a follow-up survey, individuals receiving special treatment were more willing to take on a task beneficial to their group than those who were treated with respect but not preferentially.

Of course, none of these findings suggest treating all employees respectfully would have some sort of negative impact on a team, says Karl Aquino, a professor in the organizational behavior and human resources division at Sauder and co-author of the study.

"There's a lot of research showing that positive treatment leads to good team outcomes," says Aquino. "What we show in our study is that when people are treated equally but well, they do not seem to react as favorably compared to when everyone is treated well, but they are treated just a little better."

The conclusion, he says, "is more that there are added benefits that can be gained by showing preferential treatment to some, assuming that everyone is treated reasonably well."

The results were "somewhat surprising," adds Aquino, in that "even when everyone is already treated reasonably well, people do still seem to attend to and care about whether they are treated just a little bit better than others."

Nevertheless, "it does make sense to expect that people whose work counts most should be given some special treatment," he says. "The question that isn't obvious is 'what kind of [special] treatment, and how much more special?'"

Therein lies the challenge for managers and HR professionals.

"There are no perfect answers to this," says Aquino. "There are many ways to show preferential treatment to high performers, ranging from giving them recognition or paying them more.

"In our studies, we were looking at interpersonal treatment by a leader, which could be something as mundane as reacting more positively to someone's responses, showing more attentiveness to them, or even putting a smiley face on an email communication. These small signs of favorable treatment seemed to have some beneficial effects on the people who received them."

Of course, leaders must be mindful of not "visibly playing favorites" in the workplace, notes Rich Wellins, senior vice president with Bridgeville, Pa.-based HR consulting firm Development Dimensions International, and author of multiple books on building and empowering teams in the workplace.

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"That said, I am a firm believer that effective talent management is not a democracy," he continues. "Leaders must identify high performers objectively, while giving them differential focus in terms of special assignments, development and coaching. I also believe in giving high performers larger salary increases."

While standout employees are entitled to recognition and rewards -- and a certain amount of the star treatment -- for their efforts, sustaining their high productivity without creating envy among the rest of the team requires striking a delicate balance, says Jason Jeffay, global leader of Mercer's leadership and organization performance practice.

"You can't create a high-performance workforce without some degree of differentiation between employees," he says. "The key is to differentiate based on the right things."

For example, most employees accept that top performers earn larger salaries, says Jeffay. "But, when employees see these employees being allowed to, say, come in late, leave early or take long lunches, then those things tend to be less acceptable. The more objective, the more business-related and the more performance-related the criteria you're using to differentiate top performers, the more acceptable it will be to [other] employees."

Keeping the focus on rewarding accomplishment may also help spur other employees to reach greater heights, he adds. "By doing this, you send a message that doing more counts. You're also sending a message about what you value - performance -- and what is important in your organization."

Ultimately, "there's no right answer to what the correct balance is," says Aquino. But rest assured, he says, that employees are paying attention to how they're treated in general and in comparison to their colleagues. As such, managers must be creative about finding ways to make everyone feel special without creating too much envy or giving the appearance of bias or nepotism, Aquino concludes.

"Consider the many different ways a manager can make someone feel a little bit special, and try to provide each employee with some sense they are treated more preferentially than others in some way. The treatment we looked at is a perception, so what matters is not whether the manager really treats the employee preferentially, but whether the employee thinks they do."

At the same time, managers "[have] to make sure everyone receives some minimal level of respectful treatment, and be careful not to lavish too much favor upon an individual or a group of employees who may not necessarily deserve it."

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