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Being the Chosen One: Favoritism Fallout

It’s not just the favored one who pays the price.

Key points

  • People all have favorites and can't help showing it. It’s human nature.
  • There’s always a price to pay for favoritism at home or at work. The question is, who pays it?
  • Unmanaged, perceived unfairness can backfire not just on the favored but those around them.
Nuala Walsh/Canva
Source: Nuala Walsh/Canva

“Don’t play favorites” is commonly espoused wisdom. Of course, leaders, coaches, teachers, recruiters, and parents know this, but human nature takes over, and we reject the advice. After all, some people are more likable and easier to get along with than others—usually because they agree with you!

While playing favorites might be occasionally useful or even valid, ironically, you’re not doing yourself—or the favored individual—any favors!

In a litigious world where even a hint of exclusion attracts the ire of social media and its poison pitchfork, this wisdom holds more merit than you think.

Fawning, FOMO, and Favoritism

Do you have particular go-to individuals you seek for advice, inspiration, or coffee? Are these the same people with whom you share gossip or assign critical projects? Most people do.

But what happens when sports coaches pick their friend’s child for the team rather than the best athlete? Or when teachers pick the compliant pupil rather than the best pupil as head girl or boy? Or when bosses promote the brown-noser who stays late but isn’t the top performer?

As the decision-maker, it’s easy to forget those painful moments when you were the unfavored. Remember when the boss fawned over and always agreed with your colleague? Or when you were cast aside for the smarter, prettier, funnier, richer, more influential other? We’ve all sat on both sides of the table.

Favoritism starts young. A preferred pupil or child typically receives more presents, clothing, praise, or attention than others. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy that shapes lives and legacies—they start to believe in themselves more, and consequently, science suggests, they tend to become more successful.

Conversely, the unfavored individual is hit with a barrage of internalized low self-esteem bullets. Feelings of sadness, anger, or depression result as they struggle to cope with unequal treatment. FOMO becomes deep-seated. Acting out, rebellion, or engaging in risky behaviors to gain recognition isn’t surprising. It festers an undercurrent of bitterness that’s hard to escape.

This can scar the individual and damage teacher-child, employer-employee, parent-child, and sibling relationships. A sense of ingrained injustice and resentment persists long into adulthood, affecting how individuals relate to each other and straining group dynamics for years.

What’s more, the powerholder destroys their own reputation for integrity and impartiality.

Despite belief in our impartiality, we’re not immune.

Group divisions are a predictable feature of human societies. Social psychologists and behavioral economists tout much evidence of in-group bias. This isn’t new, but its effects are more contagious in a hyperconnected world.

A Leadership Dilemma

Research suggests leaders who exhibit preferential treatment can enhance collaboration, especially in start-ups with generalist skills, fluid role definitions, and structures. But this is short-lived.

All organizations eventually grow up—or go bust.

Favoritism is a temporary salve. How often do you witness leaders allocate yet another plum project, the best timeshifts, or bonuses to their favorites? It happens more than we notice. Some 92 percent of executives confess to witnessing favoritism during the promotion process. Paradoxically but predictably, 77 percent deny doing this themselves. It’s a blind spot. It’s also a costly mistake. Organizations that engage in vendor favoritism overspend by an estimated 10 percent.

What happens if this behavior occurs in medical settings, casting offices, courtrooms, academia, or politics? Discrimination and injustice are predictable penalties. Yet it happens all the time.

Despite incentivizing retention of the chosen few, this strategy hides substantial risks. The potential for conflict and jealousy escalates. In-groups and out-groups form. Over time, cronyism corrodes trust, obstructing critical information exchange.

Predictably, a rise in turnover follows—overlooked talent leaves, fueled by a sense of unfairness, compounded by the distraction and humiliation of crawling to superiors for attention. Financially, employees who perceived pay-related unfairness are 4.3 times more likely to leave.

If leaders tolerate subpar performance or elevate based on sentiment rather than merit, team productivity plummets in a domino effect. Moreover, the favored individual can become a target of deep-seated envy, back-stabbing, and sabotage. The disenchanted and unappreciated resort to grievances, activism, and class actions. Brand and reputation damage follows.

Think Rewards, Not Regrets

As a former executive with over three decades of being favored and unfavored, I advise clients to exercise caution in their leadership decisions, considering the correlated consequences. There will always be the standout talent that unconsciously garners attention and justifies exceptional rewards, but this needs to be contained. Across any setting, sidelining individuals gratuitously fosters a toxic social environment and breeds resentment.

Don’t assume you’re always fair and impartial either, because chances are, you’re not. Humans are fallible. Unconsciously or consciously, you’re likely to be extremely partial to those whose values, interests, and backgrounds are similar to yours rather than giving due voice to outliers, mavericks, and misfits.

Regardless of your intent, leaders understand the cost of exclusion. The best leaders motivate everyone around them to feel good about themselves and to perform at their individual best.

Take a cue from my 96-year-old grandmother. Make everyone equally feel like they’re your favorite.

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