The upside of having a favourite employee, or two

Contrary to popular belief, workplace favouritism may not always be negative and can have positive effects on team performance.
By: | February 16, 2023

The perception of favouritism in the workplace has long been considered negative and can lead to conflict and issues within working teams. A new study, however, is offering a new perspective that leaders can potentially achieve better results in their teams if they play favourites.

To determine the effects of favouritism in the workplace, the study surveyed over 1,100 employees in more than 200 different teams across China and found that in less structured teams, having a biased leader led to better outcomes, with improved coordination and performance across the entire team. On the other hand, performance dipped when leaders played favourites in teams that were already well-structured, either because some employees were placed in positions of authority or because some had more advanced skill sets.

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Xu Haoying, Assistant Professor of Management at Stevens Institute of Technology, and co-author of the report, explained, “In homogenous groups, playing favourites can be a way for leaders to clarify the roles that different team members should play. When teams lack obvious hierarchies, it helps if the leader sends clear signals about who’s on top and who is expected to take a more subordinate role.”

Drawing on leader-member exchange (LMX) theory, which studies the relationships between supervisors and employees, Xu pointed out that leadership biases operate by sending signals about the relative status of different team members. Favouritism, in teams that lack a clear pecking order, provides a framework that reduces conflict and increases efficiency by helping employees to establish a stable dynamic. 

“The key point is that playing favouritism has clear positive and negative effects, so leaders need to ensure they’re paying attention to how their favouritism is affecting their team,” Xu concluded.