Can playing favorites help your team?

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Whether they admit it or not, most leaders have favorites on their team — those with whom they share more information, trust and confidence to complete important tasks.

This is natural because we gravitate toward people based on factors like interpersonal compatibility and demonstrated performance abilities, according to the Harvard Business Review.

Studies show most leaders treat their team members differently, though they are usually unaware of these differences. Similar to subconscious biases, leaders have a natural tendency to favor team members who demonstrate their own ideas or preferences for what an ideal team member does. Varying treatment of members reflects differentiation in the level of relationship quality leaders have with their team members, or what researchers call "leader-member exchange," according to the report.

When a high level of LMX between a leader and team member exists, the subordinate typically demonstrates the types of positive outcomes the leader desires, such as high performance, job satisfaction, solid organizational citizenship behavior and even going beyond their outlined job responsibilities. Employees with high LMX are also usually more committed to their companies, happier with the leadership and less likely to resign.

Many of these positive effects result from implicit leader preferences, but they can also occur from conscious effort. According to HBR, research suggests the effects of LMX differentiation can motivate high performance among individuals as well as teams collectively. However, there are a few rules to playing favorites.

Research at Portland State University found LMX differentiation has no effect or positive effects on individual team members if they believe their leaders have established a work environment with fair and unbiased decision-making procedures. Helping behaviors were more evident among team members when they believed they were working in a fair environment, according to the report. Other studies done at the University of Illinois at Chicago found LMX differentiation was associated with high team performance, but only when team members also demonstrated a high level of coordination and communication, or team interdependence.

Ultimately, moderate levels of differential treatment help teams in terms of productivity, but extreme differences in treatment could lead to the creation of smaller factions within the team, conflict and hurt feelings, according to the report.

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