Leadership and Playing Favorites

   — It’s what good leaders do!

One of your best employees (by whatever performance measure you use) needs an extra day of bereavement leave for the death of a grandparent who raised her near single-handedly. This employee has been with you 6+ years, with no attendance issues, no unreasonable demands, and you can’t even remember the last time she asked you for something.

She even commits—without your asking—to working extra hours to cover her absence, and says you can reach her via email and cell during that time.

As your lips purse up to say “yeah, sure!” you get this nagging thought: “If I do it for her, I’ll have to do it for everyone.”

There’s this string of advice that oft-times permeates otherwise thoughtful organizations. In a misguided effort to avoid conflict, tough conversations and tense performance discussions—and the ubiquitous “prevent lawsuits”—many will advise leadership to treat all employees the same.

What a load of crap.

Nice try, Mister Lazy, but you’re not getting off that easy. If identical treatment for all was effective, I’d include it in my “Definitive, 12-Page Guide to all Things Leadership.” It would sell three gazillion copies, and I’d be living on my very own private Tahitian island.

And in all likelihood, you wouldn’t be invited. No, identical treatment is not the answer.

Think about it this way… divide all your employees into just two categories based on overall performance and behavior: High Performers and Low Performers. That’s it, just those two categories. Got it?

Now ask yourself this: If I treat all employees identically, who does a happy dance—High Performers or Low Performers?

<brief pause while Jeopardy music plays in the background…>

The answer is (continuing the Jeopardy theme) “Who are Low Performers, Alex?” Correct!! They know they’ll benefit from your reluctance to treat High Performers “too” badly, so they are definitely some happy campers.

The High Performers… not so much. They’re thinking, “What the hell…?” I bust my butt, outperforming the majority of these goobers, and for what? Nothing?!

Yeah, okay. Rotsa ruck with that approach. That’s just wrong, and in no way does it represent successful, positive leadership.

So, let’s return to your internal conversation about that employee wanting the extra day. You were at “If I do it for her, I’ll have to do it for everyone.”

Therein lies that load of bunk. Well, sort of… you see, you’re correct in that, should another 6+ year high performer with no attendance or behavior issues that rarely asks for anything at all, who volunteers to be accessible during this extra time off.. if that sort of employee asks you for that extra day, you’re right. You should provide it to him just like this current situation.

But if a 6-month slugatron, always feeling entitled to everything, or a 2-year mediocre performer who just stays out of PIP reach should ask, you should give ‘em this:


Assuming that you identify high performers for appropriate performance—and not simply personal reasons—you should show favoritism. They are your favorites.

And what, then, do you tell those whining Low Performers when they complain about you playing favorites? You tell ‘em you’re right! I do play favorites! The good news is you’re welcome to join the “favorites” team. Love to have you on board.

Yes, Low Performer, you too can get a super-secret Ovaltine Little Orphan Annie secret decoder. Just do your job, do it well, keep your nose clean and show that you can be as loyal to the organization as you want me to be to you.

Easy-peasy. You are now a “favorite,” with all the rights, honors and privileges of this exalted position.

Leaders—identify your best performers and treat them like your best performers. If your lower performers aren’t happy about that, give them a road map to high-performance, or tell ‘em to suck it up and get used to it.

Leadership is tough. Wear a helmet. Darth Vader has a cool helmet.

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