Does having favourites in the office really work?

1 February 2013
I am one of three girls and my parents were very careful to treat us equally – preferential treatment was not tolerated. It seemed to work, as there is no sibling rivalry between us (well, not as far as I know, anyway).

But according to research conducted by the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business to be published in the Journal of Business Ethics, if you want a top performing team, then bosses should pick favourites.

Although common sense tells us that if we treat everyone the same this should produce a harmonious work environment, the study claims this can be a disincentive for workers who would otherwise go above and beyond on behalf of the team with a little bit of extra attention. The research revealed through a series of experiments, people are more likely to experience heightened self-esteem and perform tasks that benefit a team if the boss treats them relatively better than other people in their group. Professor Karl Aquino, who co-authored the study, admits this is not as simple as picking favourites. He realises that treating certain employees better than the rest can turn others off. He says: “There has to be a balance – treat everyone reasonably well, but treat those whose work counts most or who have been most productive just a little bit better.” But surely it is much more complex than this? Aquino even acknowledges that although working culture in the US leans toward showing preferential treatment to star employees, in the UK, Canada and some Asian cultures there is a more democratic approach. I can’t see this style of management achieving results in any places I have worked. It would simply allow resentment to grow within the team. Surely the best teams are those where bosses make each individual feel valued and given the opportunity to grow, rather than a ‘divide and rule’ approach, which seems to be favoured in this study?
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