I Play Favorites

A Good Father Does Not Play Favorites—A Good Leader Does

This past Father’s Day, I reflected on the great uniqueness of all of my children. Each of them special in their own way, each of them so different, yet loved just the same. In our home, our children are equally supported, equally loved and shown equal favor.

Contrary to the age-old parenting advice of not playing favorites amongst your kids, I believe that playing favorites amongst your employees is one of the most valuable behaviors as a manager.


ImageWhile reading (or writing) the phrase, “playing favorites” it’s almost impossible not to picture some childish squabble amongst employees—having a tug-of-war with a packet of papers—only to be quieted by a manager choosing his/her “favorite” as the victor of the confrontation. This is not the kind of favoritism I’m endorsing. You cannot show favoritism on the basis of personality, friendship, who you play softball with, who tells you what you want to hear or who flatters you the most—that is what immature managers do. That is what an immature organization does.

A great manager plays favorites on the basis of performance and productivity. This more effective form of playing favorites is about inclusion, through time, attention and rewards that help drive employee performance even further. By acknowledging and spending quality time with your top performers, you set a level of expectations around performance and help every employee understand your goals for all of them.


Great leaders and managers are great problem solvers. We want to invest our skills, time and attention to getting all employees to a good place. The better we get at it, the more we are tempted to believe that we can work to drive strong performance from every employee. We take it as a personal challenge, tempted to spend most or nearly all of our time pushing low performers to improvement. Experience shows, however, that most employees will make only marginal improvements despite prolonged best efforts. [See my What Great Coaches Know” post] Many leaders spend an extraordinary amount of time on such efforts when their time is better served further developing their top performers. Avoid that temptation.


Fairness is not treating everyone the same; it’s treating employees as they deserve to be treated consistent with their accomplishments. As Marcus Buckingham said in First Break All the Rules, “You must spend the most time with your best people.” Great managers know that leading talented people is just as challenging as leading those who are struggling. Run interference for your best so they can reach goals and best utilize their talents. Do not be preoccupied by the burden of transforming strugglers into survivors. Instead, spend your time on the difficult work of guiding the good toward outstanding. Also, recognize those who are exceptional.


Chief Data Officer Mark Headd winning the 2013 Managing Director’s Award

For the past two years, the Managing Director’s Office has held the “MDO Awards” to highlight excellent achievement by departments or individual employees. These awards have included: Excellence in Customer Engagement, Operational Excellence, Excellence in Innovation, Most Improved Department, Outstanding Business Partner, among others. Held in the Mayor’s Reception Room, the awards are delivered “Oscars style” (loosely) by means of two presenters and the opening of an envelope. Through this, we want excellent employees to feel like stars, we want them to feel special. We make an effort to make these public awards special because excellence deserves special treatment; excellence deserves some favoritism.

If you properly demonstrate favoritism, you can create a linkage between attention and superb performance; this linkage will pay dividends in employee development and job performance. Give an outstanding employee your time. Give a group of employees rewards to propel them forward. If everyone received the same amount of attention and participatory awards, then attention and awards would have no value and employees would not be motivated. Play favorites. Don’t parent your employees—lead them.

Rich Negrin

Rich Negrin is the City of Philadelphia’s Managing Director and Deputy Mayor for Administration and Coordination. Service Centered Leadership is the Managing Director’s blog series appearing on PhillyInnovates. Follow Rich on Twitter @RichNegrin.





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