Forget being fair, bosses should pick favourites if they want top performing teams, a new study has claimed. "Conventional wisdom tells us that we should treat everyone the same to create a collegial and productive work atmosphere," said co-author of the study, Karl Aquino from the University of British Columbia Sauder School of Business.
"But our research shows 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," Aquino said. In a series of experiments, the researchers found people are more likely to experience heightened self-esteem, follow workplace norms, and perform tasks that benefit a group if a leader treats them relatively better than other people in their group.
"Bosses are in a tricky position. There's a risk that treating some employees better than the rest can turn others off. The key is to find the right balance - treat everyone reasonably well, but treat those whose work counts most or who have been most productive just a little bit better," Aquino said.
Aquino explained that, in general working culture in the US leans toward showing preferential treatment to star employees, while Canadian, northern European and most Asian cultures take a more egalitarian approach. "Managers should consider a middle path to avoid creating envy while sustaining high levels of productivity among their star players," Aquino suggested.
In one of the experiments, researchers looked at how preferential treatment from bosses affects a person's self-worth in their job and willingness to conform to workplace norms. A 357-person sample was surveyed online to assess their level of preferential treatment in the workplace. The workers were also asked to nominate a colleague to participate in a second online survey to report on whether the employee violated norms of efficient production and considerate conduct.
Respondents who reported receiving preferential treatment from their bosses reported feeling a greater sense of self-worth in their jobs. Their colleagues' assessment was that they behaved less antisocially and more productively at work.
In another experiment, participants were asked to rate their willingness to take on a task to benefit a subsequent group discussion. Participants who received preferential treatment indicated that they were more willing to take on a group serving task than those who were treated well but equally. The study will be published in the Journal of Business Ethics.