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Favoritism is alive and well in the American workplace. A new study by Jonathan Gardner of the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University demonstrates that favoritism is still a factor in corporate America and plays an important role in promotions. Some days it seems like we are back in grade school observing the dynamics between teachers and their pets and pet-wannabes. Apparently many of us have not outgrown the habit.

Here are the details of the study:

  • 92 percent of senior executives have witnessed favoritism at play in employee promotions.
  • 84 percent have seen it at their own companies.
  • 23 percent said they themselves practiced favoritism.
  • 29 percent said their most recent promotion considered only a single candidate.
  • 56 percent said when more than one candidate was considered, they already knew who they wanted to promote before deliberations.
  • 96 percent report promoting the pre-selected individual.

Why does this matter? Cronyism and nepotism are bad for organizations and for the people who work in them because recipients of favoritism are often promoted into positions for which they have either little capacity and/or competence. The wrong people in the wrong positions can wreak havoc in an organization and seriously damage morale and impact results.  We at Marigold have seen this on numerous occasions in our work with client companies.

But not all forms of favoritism are necessarily bad. People have or become favorites for many reasons. With that in mind, here are a few thoughts about favoritism, organizations and promotions.

Why We Have Favorites

Favoritism is understandable because of:

    1. Our Sociability

    We are social beings. This may seem obvious, but it is baffling that the idea that relationships are essential to doing good work continues to struggle to find a place within management literature.

    2. Our Desire for Familiarity and Camaraderie

    People like to work with people they know and with whom they can get along. Additionally, working with people we can trust is essential. Trust is built through relationships. All things being equal, most of us given an option would choose to work with someone we click with rather than someone who irritates us or who is at best neutral.

    3. Our Interdependence

    Leaders and followers depend upon each other. In his book, Don’t Step on the Rope, Walter Wright uses a metaphor from mountaineering to describe the interdependence of teams. Each team member is tied into the rope with all other team members. A team encounters obstacles together and reaches the summit together. This is a great image that underlines the reality that each depends upon one another to attain their goal. A leader is not successful without a great team and vice versa.

    4. Our Tendency towards Brand Loyalty

    We naturally go to people who work hard, are competent, keep their commitments, and deliver results.Go-to people can seem like favorites, but this is a bit like brand loyalty. You know what you are getting when you ask them to do something.

But these are not the reasons favoritism in the workplace can be detrimental. Used negatively, favoritism bypasses a merit-based, transparent, assessment-driven model of hiring and promotion. As a result, it has a profound impact upon all involved.

10 Problems with Favoritism

    1. Shortcuts ignore long-term outcomes.

    It is easier and seemingly safer to decide for the devil you know than the one you don’t. It’s probably not, but this thinking is why so many hire and promote people they know and like. It protects the established status quo, culture and institutional commitments (both positive and negative).

    2. It clouds transparency.

    Favoritism is often disguised by other commitments, such as ideology, budget, continuity, or timing. Most senior executives and board members don’t see it as favoritism. Leaders tend to overestimate their ability to read people and they think they are hand picking someone they know well who will fit the position admirably.

    3. It affirms personal needs over corporate good.

    Too many leaders have a compulsive need to be liked. I personally am skeptical of the idea that most leaders can see through the person on their team who is sucking up or using their charm, sexuality or some other practiced behavior to become a favorite.

    4. It contributes to loss of respect.

    Favoritism impacts the ability of the newly hired/promoted to lead. When people see favoritism occurring, the new leader’s reputation and respect are directly impacted. (And the decision-makers who exhibited favoritism can also lose respect.)

    5. Others are denied opportunity.

    Favoritism can perpetuate discrimination based upon race, gender, age or other forms, and can hinder worthy candidates from finding their place and their opportunity to make a solid contribution.

    6. It relies on the past to predict the future.

    Favoritism focuses on past performance and does not guarantee success at the next level.The new position will demand a different personality profile (capacity) and skill set (competence and performance). For example, a favorite talented sales person does not necessarily make a great VP of sales.

    7. It’s viral.

    Favoritism is like a disease that infects the organizational culture. The workplace is a type of community that is founded upon trust, transparency, honesty, merit, performance, and justice (professionalism). When leaders handpick and promote their personal favorites, it betrays these fundamental values and injects a virus into the organizational culture.

    8. It stunts personal growth.

    Favoritism derails the personal development and growth of the boss’ pet. While the reasons are unique to the individual, they are promoted for reasons outside the actual needs of the position or organization. A transparent process and search legitimates the promotion/hiring in everyone’s eyes and pushes people to develop their own capacity and skill set.

    9. It stunts professional growth.

    Favoritism can derail the process of growing into the new position. Max De Pree used to say that presidents and vice-presidents when appointed to their new position are provided the opportunity to become the president or vice-president. Leadership involves more than just positional rank and authority. A transparent search process allows those within the organization to assess the candidate, observe their style and listen to their answers to important questions. They need to decide on their own to offer respect and get behind the new appointee.

    10. It promotes imbalance.

    Favoritism can impact the power dynamic between boss and newly hired/promoted and result in off-balance interactions with each other and coworkers at large.

Favoritism is a reality because we are social beings. The challenge for bosses and organizations is to develop systems and processes that account for human nature and maximize diversity. Favoritism provides safety, continuity, and uniformity, but very often the person promoted isn’t right for a host of reasons and favoritism obfuscates those issues. A transparent process that includes the best candidates one can secure will yield a better result for the organization and the people involved, regardless whether the favorite or another is hired.

How has favoritism impacted you and your organization?

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