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?


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© 2012 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.

Shamash of the Day, and other Thoughts on Win-Win Solutions

The votes are in! Many of you visited the voting page to tell me what topics you would like to hear about (thanks!), and conflict management is a top request. While this topic is deep and complex, with scholarly research and formal models used by professional mediators, I have some simple approaches to share that have worked for me over the years.

I’ll start with a story. When my kids were little, they attended preschool at the local Jewish Community Center. As part of the daily routine, one of the kids was chosen to be the “shamash” to help the teacher. (I believe this term comes from synagogues, where the shamash is someone who assists the rabbi.) At our preschool, the shamash chose the story to be read at nap time, headed up the line to the playground, and even put the challah bread in the oven on Fridays. My kids loved being the shamash! And I think the teachers loved having a shamash as well. Since everyone took turns being the assistant, the teachers didn’t have to remember who the line leader was yesterday or who hadn’t had a turn in a while. What a brilliant idea for reducing rivalry and conflict! So, I decided to apply the shamash concept at home. On alternating days, my kids took turns being the shamash, which meant they chose what television show to watch, what book would be read aloud at bedtime, and who would take their bath first. As they got older, the choices evolved to things like who got to sit in the front seat of the car. By having a shamash, we virtually eliminated the potential conflict over daily decisions; my kids felt things were fair.

Of course, not every conflict can be prevented by having a shamash. Whenever there are groups or individuals who perceive an inequity or have a difference of opinion, conflict can occur.

Earlier in my career, I participated in a leadership-focused book club. One of our discussions was on Getting to Yes by Roger Fisher, William Ury, and William Paton. From its jacket: “Getting to Yes offers a concise, step-by-step, proven strategy for coming to mutually acceptable agreements in every sort of conflict – whether it involves parents and children, neighbors, bosses and employees, customers or corporations, tenants or diplomats.” I appreciated the authors’ emphasis on win-win solutions and their examples of what happens when you make assumptions about what the other side wants to achieve. If you start negotiating with misunderstanding, it’s bound to fail.

Even with a great resource like “Getting to Yes,” I still find that managing conflict is hard work.

  • I often find I’m emotionally exhausted by handling conflicts. In trying to get to the root of the disagreement, I find myself carefully asking questions, empathizing without taking sides, and, at times, walking on eggshells in an attempt to not make things worse.
  • I can get defensive if the conflict is with me.
  • I may upset others, especially if I tell them how to resolve things in a way they don’t agree with.
  • In the moment, I’m tempted to ignore the conflict or procrastinate. While time may heal some issues, the big conflicts never resolve themselves.

So, when I need to manage conflict, I remind myself of these best practices:

  1. Get ahead of it. If possible, I try to prevent conflict from happening by setting things up for success, as I did by having my kids take turns being the shamash. At work, I look for ways to build relationships which will serve as building blocks for resolving future conflict.
  2. Focus on the issue at hand, not the emotions, egos, or politics. I do my best to understand what each side wants to achieve. I put myself in their shoes, and I summarize their goals or concerns as simply as possible. I ask them if there is anything I missed.
  3. Acknowledge strong emotions but don’t pass judgment. I say things like “I can see you are upset” or “You look frustrated.”
  4. Brainstorm solutions. Working with both sides, I identify potential ways to resolve the concerns or meet the goals. I make sure they participate in generating ideas so that they are more likely to feel a sense of ownership. I try to find win-win solutions.
  5. Resolve it. I objectively explain which solution seems best and why. I look for ways to help both sides save face.

What approaches have you used to manage conflict as a parent or a leader? Do you have a favorite book to recommend on the topic? I look forward to hearing from you.


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© 2012 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.

When it’s time to kill the sled dogs

StateLibQld 1 242813 Frank Hurley's photograph of the Endurance being crushed by the ice in Antarctica, 1915

One of my favorite books is “Endurance,” Sir Ernest Shackleton’s story of his attempt in 1914 to cross Antartica via the South Pole. After his ship became stuck in ice, Shackleton led his crew on a two year journey to safety. Along the way, he showed incredible leadership. One example is when he made the difficult decision to kill the sled dogs, who were a drain on their precious supplies.  Shackleton, knowing that his men were fond of the animals, talked about how much the dogs consumed for a few weeks before announcing his decision. By socializing the idea that they may need to kill the dogs, he gave everyone time to come to grips with it.

As leaders, we are faced with difficult decisions all the time. I remember a particularly challenging hiring process for a manager in my department. I was looking for someone with a specific technical expertise who could also chart an inspiring, strategic direction. After reviewing many resumes, I found an ideal candidate and brought him in to be interviewed by the team. Afterwards, I led a debriefing session to gather everyone’s feedback. To my surprise, they gave a collective thumbs-down. I couldn’t believe it! He was more than qualified and an all-around nice guy, but still the team didn’t think he was the right person to hire. Over the next couple of days, I muddled over this feedback, consulted with some of my trusted members of the team, and ultimately decided to hire him. My gut told me he was the one. When I announced my decision to the team, I made sure I did three things:

  • I acknowledged that I heard their feedback,
  • I told them I was going against their recommendations and explained why, and
  • I asked them to keep an open mind as the candidate joined us.

Even though my decision was unpopular, I heard later that the team appreciated how direct I was. They were open-minded as they welcomed their new manager, and he became both successful and well-respected. I would make that tough decision again in a heart beat.

The decisions we face as parents can be just as difficult and seem to be never ending. What pediatrician will we choose for our baby? Do we spend the extra money for organic food? Do we trust this caregiver? What school option is right for our child? Should we get a dog? Does our preteen need a cell phone? Is our 16-year old responsible enough to get her driver’s license? The list is endless.

Even with years of experience as both a leader and a parent, I still find it hard to make tough decisions because:

  • I may not have all the information to make the decision. So, I have to trust my instinct.
  • I may make the wrong decision. I don’t have a crystal ball that shows me the impact of my decisions. If and when I make a mistake, I own it. I take responsibility for the decision and how to handle the fallout.
  • I may be less liked. Tough decisions are rarely popular.

Given that making difficult decisions is a fact of life, I have found these best practices helpful:

  1. reflect my personal values. I do my best to be genuine and transparent, and to share my thoughts about the decision in a way that is respectful to those that will be impacted. I try to empathize with anyone who will be impacted by a decision.
  2. I often socialize a decision before it is final to gather more input and to give others time to deal with it. I explain why I need to make the decision, and how I am going to make the decision. I listen to what others have to say about it, and decide if I should reflect their input in my decision. I make note of concerns that I want to address when I explain what decision I have made.
  3. don’t procrastinate. Tough decisions rarely get easier to make over time. If there is no obvious deadline, I choose one and stick to it. I strive to give myself enough time to evaluate options and the impact on my business or family, but not to the extreme that I can’t make a timely decision.
  4. I am definitive. When I share the final decision, I don’t second guess myself. I make sure others know the decision is final. At home, where my husband and I share the decision making process, I use words like, “Dad and I have decided…”  At work, I say direct things like, “This decision is final.”

While I hope you and I never have to actually kill any sled dogs, we will continually face tough decisions at work and at home. What best practices do you follow? I’d love to hear them and learn from you.


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© 2012 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.