If we aren’t careful, we can wind up treating people at work like dogs: continually rewarding those who heap unthinking, unconditional admiration upon us. What behavior do we get in return? A virulent case of the suck-ups.
The net result is obvious. You’re encouraging behavior that serves you but not necessarily the best interests of the company. If everyone is fawning over the boss, who’s getting work done? Worse, it tilts the field against the honest, principled employees who won’t play along. This is a double dose of bad news. You’re not only playing favorites, but also favoring the wrong people!
Leaders can stop encouraging this behavior by admitting that we all have a tendency to favor those who favor us, even if we don’t mean to.
We should then compare our direct reports on three measures.
First, how much do they like me? (I know you can’t be sure. What matters is how much you think they like you. Fawning is acting, and effective suck-ups are good actors.)
Second, what is their contribution to the company and its customers? (In other words, are they A players, B, C, or worse?)
Third, how much positive personal recognition do I give them?
What we’re looking for is whether the correlation is stronger between measures one and three or measures two and three. If we’re honest with ourselves, our recognition of people may be linked to how much they seem to like us rather than how well they perform. That’s the definition of playing favorites.
And the fault is all our own. We’re encouraging the kind of behavior that we despise in others. Without meaning to, we are basking in hollow praise, which makes us hollow leaders.
This quick self-analysis won’t solve the problem. But it identifies it, which is where change begins.
Marshall Goldsmith (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a leadership development trainer whose emphasis is on helping executives and their teams achieve positive change in behavior. He is the author of What Got You Here Won’t Get You There (Hyperion, 2007), from which this article is adapted.