On a regular Tuesday afternoon, I once asked a legal assistant if she preferred one of her three daughters to the others. To my disbelief, she answered honestly, “Well, yes. I love them all, but I just have more in common with Janine.”
At home, parents play favorites. In the office, bosses do, too.
In addition to skillset, ability, or pedigree, employers can’t help but judge a person on personality. And, those associates who have more in common in terms of sports teams, school mascots, hobbies, and family will likely form de facto alliances at the firm.
Problems arise when those alliances form between a boss and a subordinate. As a result, other—often equally capable—employees receive less praise, less attention, and less interesting work.
Unsurprisingly, this idea is more than a suspicion. Data from a recent study, conducted by a leadership development consultancy and published by the Harvard Business Review Blog, confirms that there is such a thing as the boss’s favorites.
“And while, in any disagreement we inevitably find both parties bear part of the fault—that is, the disgruntled employees do certainly play some role in their own unhappiness—we consistently found in the analysis that their complaints were justified,” writes Joseph Folkman for the HBR Blog in the article, “Are You Creating Disgruntled Employees?”
“Their managers were in fact treating the disgruntled employee differently than they treated their very satisfied employees.”
Surprisingly, however, both managers and employees can get back in one another’s good graces once again. With a few changes in behavior and attitude, managers can boost the performance of their most disgruntled associates. In turn, disgruntled associates do play a role in their own happiness at work. Become the boss’s new favorite by increasing open and honest communication.
Leaders in the office, according to the aforementioned study, need to:
1. Encourage employees more.
The study focused on the six percent of people in the database of 160,576 employees who displayed the lowest levels of job satisfaction and commitment on their 360 evaluations of their bosses. When this six percent was asked to name the skill that they thought was most important for their boss to demonstrate, the top response was “Inspire and motivate others.”
From a manager’s perspective, it’s far more rewarding to focus on the career development of the most receptive and happy employees in the bunch. Working over and over to inspire those who have poor attitudes or performance feels draining. In fact, negative attitudes tend to be contagious.
However, it’s for this reason that leaders need to work harder to encourage any disgruntled associates. Ignoring the problem will just compound it and increases employee dissatisfaction.
What’s more, the aforementioned study indicates that when bosses treat their disgruntled employees like everyone else—as if they show equal promise—the employees’ performance and behavior quickly improves.
2. Take an interest in associate development.
“If a person works hard and gets a pay check he has a job. But if a person works hard, gets a pay check, and learns a new skill, she has a career,” sagely writes Folkman.
Bosses play favorites when they focus career development strategies solely on the high-potential associates. Unfortunately, everyone else is left to drown in their wake. Call these employees underachievers, disgruntled, inept. But, the reality is your firm is a team.
If you expect the worst from your associates, you’ll get it.
Take interest in the career development of every employee. You’ll create a more well-rounded legal team, as well as dispel any rumors that you play favorites. Becoming a beloved leader will inspire more productivity and happiness among subordinates.
From these conclusions, disgruntled employees—or, at least, those associates who are not among the boss’s favorites—ought to:
3. Listen to other associates.
There may be a reason you are not among the boss’s favorites. You are that underperformer, underachiever, and generally disgruntled employee. Have you heard people say you have a bad attitude? Do other employees tend to bypass your office whenever they’re looking to discuss last night’s ball game?
Listen to what other associates are talking about. If your personal interests hold you back from being the favorite, it’s time to weigh in.
“Managers go to lunch more with people they like, our data show; they talk with them more socially (about children, sports, etc); they know them more personally. This is natural, surely, but so are the feelings of exclusion it creates among the less favored,” Folkman explains about the study results.
“A small effort by managers to spread their attention around more broadly can go a long way here.”
And, a small effort by employees to endear their managers can also go a long way.
4. Give feedback, in addition to taking it gracefully.
It turns out, a major complaint of the bottom six percent of the study was that bosses did not give them honest feedback. Instead, bosses wrote “You’re coming along fine,” or other innocuous comments in regard to performance.
When you find yourself faced with a disingenuous review—or even just a generic one—ask questions. Seek further feedback.
Not only will your boss perceive this as a increased interest in the job, but she will also likely appreciate your honesty and return it. But, that being said, be prepared for negative remarks. Listen and accept gracefully. Then, ask how you can improve.
Furthermore, give feedback about your boss’s leadership skills. Ask for more one-on-one mentorship. Don’t wait for an anonymous study to show that they play favorites–let them know you’d like to be one by seeking more work responsibility and building trust.
This year, make favoritism by your boss work to your favor.