Avoiding Favoritism & The Trap of The “Suck-up” Culture

It’s natural that we tend to like some people more than others, but when it comes to the workplace, playing favorites can cause a lot of trouble. 

Marshall Goldsmith has reviewed the leadership profiles of hundreds of companies. These documents will typically describe how the companies want their leaders and employees to behave. You can usually find descriptions like “helps people develop their maximum potential”, “see value in differing perspectives”, and “avoids playing favorites”. 

No company he has worked with has ever included the “ability to suck up to higher management” as a part of their desired behavior. Yet, while leaders and employees both verbally claim that they hate people who suck up, this behavior is rampant in organizations.  It is important to ask ourselves why this continues to happen. 

One of the main reasons for this is we tend to create an environment in which such behavior is rewarded. Everyone claims they want their employees to express their opinions honestly and challenge the status quo. But in reality, we are still very much stuck on the suck-up culture — whether we realize it or not. 

But I don’t play favorites…

Most leaders are generally shrewd judges of character because they need to be able to size people up. So how can they still fall for suck-ups? Why do they still play favorites? 

It’s mainly because it’s harder to see in ourselves what we can see so clearly in others. Yes, this tendency to encourage sucking up and playing favorites is a problem that is very easy to identify in everybody else — but very difficult to see in ourselves. 

Some of you might be thinking “It’s amazing how some leaders can send out subtle signals that encourage their employees to mute their criticisms and exaggerate their praise to the powers that be. It’s surprising how they cannot see it in themselves. But this doesn’t apply to me”

Ask yourself — how can you be sure that you’re not one of them? That you are not in denial? 

The favoritism test

Marshall created a simple test that will prove how we all unknowingly encourage sucking up in our daily lives. Marshall will start by asking them this question: 

“Do you have a dog that you love?”

People will then raise their hands, telling him their dog’s name. And then he will ask them, “At home, who gets the most unqualified positive recognition? Your unabashed affection? Is it your partner, your kids, or your dog?”

More than 80% of the time, the winner is the dog.

Then Marshall will ask them, “Do you really love your dog more than other members of your family?” 

The answer will always be a resounding no. 

“So why does the dog get most of your attention?”

Their reply will usually be something along the lines of, “The dog is always happy to see me”, “The dog never talks back”, “The dog gives me unconditional love”. So what can we conclude? The dog is the suck-up of the family. 

We all have the tendency to favor people who favor us. If we aren’t careful, we can fall into the trap of the suck-up culture and treat the people we work with like we treat our dogs. We will continuously reward those who express unconditional admiration for us, thus enforcing the suck-up culture in the company. 

What will be the impact of encouraging behavior that serves you but is not necessarily in the best interest of your company? You will be favoring the wrong people. Suck-ups are often too busy fawning over their superiors to get their job done right. 

What’s worse is that honest employees often do not get enough credit because they won’t play into the sucking-up culture. So in the end, they might not feel valued and appreciated, and this might cause a drop in their productivity and motivation. Or worse, they might leave you for another company that realizes their true worth.

4 Ways To Avoid Favoritism in The Workplace

Here’s how you can avoid favoritism and discourage sucking up in your company. You should rank order your direct reports in 4 ways. 

  1. How much do they like me?

Although you might not know how much exactly they like you, the most important thing is how much do you THINK they like you? This way, you can identify who are the obvious suck-ups of the company. 

  1. How alike are you?

You might unknowingly favor someone just because they remind you of yourself. This happens a lot in the engineering world. Your character comes in second, the fact that you are an engineer makes you more valuable in my eyes. Or a doctor, lawyer, salesperson, it can be anything that reminds you of yourself. 

  1. What are their contributions to the company and our customers?

To make sure that you are giving the right amount of attention to the right people, you need to figure out how much they have contributed to your company and your customers. 

  1. How much positive personal recognition should I give them?

Lastly, is figuring out whether your recognition is correlated with the first and second point rather than the third point — which should be the most important. If that happens, then you clearly have been playing favorites without realizing and it’s time for you to reassess your ways. 

Now that you are more aware of your role in enabling the suck-up culture in your company, it’s time to make some changes. No more encouraging and basking in hollow praise, as it will make us hollow leaders. 

Leaders, we need your support

For more than 20 years, Marshall Goldsmith Stakeholder Centered Coaching® has built the coaching industry with our unique approach to leadership development and quantifiable results in coaching.

Last year, our co-founder and Master Coach Chris Coffey was the world’s #7 Global Coaching Guru (2021). While MGSCC® was dubbed as the world’s #1 Coaching Development Program by Global Gurus — all thanks to you.

Now, with your support, we would like to reach #1 for both categories in this year’s award season.

See how you can show your support for Chris and MGSCC® at this year’s Global Gurus Awards by clicking on the link below.




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