When is it okay to play favorites?

I think most of us would bristle if we were accused of playing favorites with our kids. I love my children deeply and unconditionally, and I would never intentionally hurt them. I want them to grow up to be happy, successful adults. And I certainly don’t want to give one of them an advantage at the expense of the other. I do my best not to play favorites.

But what about at the office? I was once accused of playing favorites by a member of my staff. I am sure I denied it at the time; it was so hard to hear that feedback. But, as I reflected on it, I realized there were some elements of truth to it. While the work this person was doing was important to the company, I was giving more of my time, more resources, and more opportunities to another staff member who was making a larger impact to our business. Before I started feeling too guilty, I remembered reading in First, Break All The Rules…What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently that the best managers do play favorites.

It turns out that many managers spend most of their time on their least productive employees, wanting to help them improve. They feel they don’t need to spend as much time with their most productive employees, because they can already do their jobs well. Sounds sensible, right? But, as First, Break All The Rules points out, it’s a mistake. The greatest managers spend time with their best employees, figuring out what they need to be even more productive and more engaged in the business. For example,

  • Do they need more budget?
  • Do they need to be introduced to someone who can help them with an assignment?
  • Do they have skills that are being underutilized?
  • Are they working on highly-visible projects that could lead to promotions?
  • Do the company’s leaders know about them?

Not only is it okay to play favorites at work, it’s a best practice. In hindsight, I wish I had agreed with the employee who accused me of playing favorites. If I could do it all over again, I would have told why I was giving more of my attention to another employee, hopefully in a way that was not hurtful, but honest and even motivating to him. If a group within a department has the opportunity to wildly exceed expectations, the entire department will benefit from an improved reputation. There will be more opportunities, more budget, more trust, and more respect. Just as all boats rise at the same rate with the tide, so do groups within a department.

By contrast, I don’t think the same rules should be applied at home. While I certainly make decisions about how to spend my time and money on music lessons, club sports teams, and other extra-curricular activities for my kids, I do so to help them discover and hone their individual talents. When one of my kids sees me spending more time with a sibling on homework on any given night, I hope they know that I will be there when they need help. I don’t ever want to play favorites with my children.

I write this blog to explore the intersection of leadership and parenting. But, on occasion, I will find areas where they don’t align. I think this is one of them. Do you agree?

–Karen

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© 2012 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.

4 thoughts on “When is it okay to play favorites?

    1. Yes, treating children differently does not mean you are not being fair or that you are playing favorites. But, it’s so very hard for kids to see they are being treated differently from their siblings. I like your guidance to parents to have clarity about why you are handling things differently, and then be confident with your decision. Great post!

  1. The same is true when seeking self-improvement. Instead of focusing all your energy on improving weak areas, “play favorites” with your strengths. Nurturing a talent can be more effective overall.

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