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?


Help me to reach my goal of 1000 followers. If you liked this post, please share it using email or one of the social media buttons below. Many thanks!

© 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.


Would you like to vote on my next topic? Click here

© 2012 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.