Is Favoring a Group of People Over Others a Good Idea?

It is always tricky to lead a team. Subordinates expect team leaders to be fair and are more devoted into tasks when they feel the leader treats them so [1]. However, from a leader’s perspective, it is intuitive to be closer and more generous to certain people than to the others. Some leaders believe that if they prefer some of their subordinates, those favored will become an informal leader within the team and share the leader’s workload [2]. Some other leaders assume that all subordinates long to become favorites. Treating subordinates differently becomes a tactic to motivate subordinates.

Both parties’ perspectives are understandable. But in reality, what’s ultimately true?

By surveying 278 members and managers of 31 intact work groups at four manufacturing plants [3], research shows that, when leading a team, favoring a particular group of people is an effective strategy. It turns out the level of being favored by a leader is positively related to subordinates’ perceptions of being adequately treated by their organization (this is known as “fulfilling a psychological contract”) — which then further promotes performance.

Meanwhile, when all subordinates know their leader favors some over others, those favored perceive an even higher level of fulfilling that psychological contract. On the other hand, the less favored subordinates feel a much lower level of psychological contract fulfillment. Leader’s favoritism is a double-edged sword.

Perhaps contradictory to some people’s predictions (or values), a leader’s favoritism is particularly helpful in motivating subordinates in a team. Nonetheless, instead of advocating for leader’s favor, research findings propose that there are risks in differentiating team members – like demotivating the unfavored employees. Leaders need to be cautious when treating team members differently.


[1] Colquitt, J. A., LePine, J. A., Piccolo, R. F., Zapata, C. P., & Rich, B. L. (2012). Explaining the justice–performance relationship: Trust as exchange deepener or trust as uncertainty reducer? Journal of Applied Psychology, 97(1), 1-15.

[2] Zhang, Z., Waldman, D. A., & Wang, Z. (2012). A multilevel investigation of leader–member exchange, informal leader emergence, and individual and team performance. Personnel Psychology, 65(1), 49-78.

[3] Henderson, D. J., Wayne, S. J., Shore, L. M., Bommer, W. H., & Tetrick, L. E. (2008). Leader--member exchange, differentiation, and psychological contract fulfillment: A multilevel examination. Journal of Applied Psychology, 93(6), 1208-1219.



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