Building Higher Trust 129 Favoritism

June 22, 2023

When leaders practice favoritism, it usually lowers trust. This article is about the relationship between the two concepts.

I believe that it is the perception of favoritism that does the most damage. Leaders need to be aware of the perception they are giving. Many of them are unaware of the damage they are doing.

Shining a light on favoritism

In a prior article several months ago, I shared some information on playing favorites. The title of the article was Leadership Barometer 181 Avoid Playing Favorites. I gave four specific actions a leader can take to reduce the problem. In this article, I want to explore the mindsets that can prevent the appearance of favoritism.

Why it is always negative

The word, favoritism, has a negative connotation in any context.  It is particularly difficult when leaders practice favoritism. When one person is favored over others in an organization it creates jealousy that often leads to conflict. The concept works against equity and fairness. Leaders who appear to practice favoritism are considered weak or clueless by the people they lead.

It is ubiquitous

The problem is that all human beings have some people they favor more than others. It is human nature, and none of us can avoid it in some form. We are all guilty of practicing favoritism at some point. How can we avoid the stigma that goes along with this common behavior? Here are some ideas that can help.

Recognize when you are doing it

Whenever you are repeating the same resource to do a job or perform a function, other people will notice.  You need to be aware that you are doing it so you can make a conscious effort to consider an alternative. If there is some kind of credential that the person you select has that others do not, so state. Do not assume that people will figure out why you habitually go with one individual.

Consider a different approach

If you are a leader, take the opportunity to reduce the appearance of favoritism in your decisions.  Think about the following actions that can make your decisions appear to be more equitable.

Establish clear criteria for assignments.

Avoid favoring certain individuals based on personal biases.

Encourage open communication about any concerns.

Base decisions on merit.

Distribute rewards and opportunities fairly.

Document and communicate decisions.

Rotate responsibilities and opportunities.

Offer a variety of opportunities for growth and development to all team members.

Involve other leaders or managers to provide diverse viewpoints and minimize the perception of bias.

Lead by example: Demonstrate fairness and impartiality in your own behavior.

Avoid engaging in conversations or actions that may give the impression of favoritism.

Model the behavior you expect from your team members.

Provide feedback and coaching: Offer constructive feedback and guidance to all team members.

Remember, building a reputation for fairness and objectivity takes time and consistent effort. By following these strategies, you can reduce the perception of playing favorites and create a more inclusive and productive work environment.


Bob Whipple, MBA, CPTD, is a consultant, trainer, speaker, and author in the areas of leadership and trust.  He is the author of: The Trust Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals, Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online, and Leading with Trust is Like Sailing Downwind.  Bob has many years as a senior executive with a Fortune 500 Company and with non-profit organizations.  For more information, or to bring Bob in to speak at your next event, contact him at, or 585.392.7763.

Building Higher Trust 46 Trust and Favoritism

November 19, 2021

I am sure we all agree that when a leader shows favoritism, it works against a culture of trust. The conclusion is so obvious, it seems there is nothing more to say about it. Unfortunately, the topic of favoritism is much more complex than meets the eye.

Common Problem

I ask the question in every leadership class I conduct. “When a leader plays favorites, does it lower trust?”  I always get unanimous affirmative votes.  Then I turn around and nail them with the following question, “Do you ever play favorites?”  I normally get a pregnant pause, then some uncomfortable responses like “Well I try to not do it.”

The reason for the problem is that if you are a human being, there are some people you would rather work with on a certain function than other people. So, you end up appearing to play favorites. 

Wisdom from John Wooden

The famous basketball coach, John Wooden, had a unique perspective on favoritism that seems to defy conventional wisdom until you think about it. He said, “The surest way I can show favoritism among my players is to treat each of them the same way.”  That sounds backward, but it actually makes good sense. 

John recognized that each player is unique and has a different set of needs from the other players. If he treats everyone the same all the time, then he is actually favoring some players over the others. There is an important distinction here when it comes to following rules.

I think if John had just considered enforcing the rules, then when he treats everyone the same way he is avoiding favoritism. There is a subtle difference between enforcement of rules and general accommodation of people’s needs. The main objective is to treat each person the right way.

How to Avoid Playing Favorites

There are a few methods that allow leaders to operate in the way they want most of the time without appearing to play favorites. I will share examples of two methods and include some sample dialog that can be useful.

Operate Outside Your Normal Groove

If you do things differently for a small portion of the time, you can avoid the appearance of having favorites. For example, if your “go-to” person on making presentations is Bill, you can say, “Normally I ask Bill to do the presentation, but I am also open to having someone else do it if you are interested.” 

You can have one person do a task most of the time, but if you allow other people to do it occasionally, you avoid the stigma of playing favorites.

The good news is that you can pick a low-risk situation to have another person fill in as if your normal “go-to” person is out sick. By cross-training other people, you also have the advantage of greater bench strength for times your usual choice is not available.

If the Person Has the Necessary Background

You might say, “I am asking Sally to prepare the marketing proposal again because she has a graduate degree in that function.”  If you can justify selecting a specific person to do some work based on a real credential, people will not accuse you of playing favorites.


In many situations, it is possible to rotate people into different roles so they grow. By doing so, you can improve bench strength and avoid being known as a leader who plays favorites.


Bob Whipple is CEO of Leadergrow, Inc. an organization dedicated to growing leaders. Website   BLOG He is author of the following books: The Trust Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals,  Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online, and Leading with Trust is Like Sailing Downwind

Talent Development 5 Role Play

July 28, 2020

One of the capability areas in the ATD CPTD certification model is “Instructional Design.” I get a lot of mileage out of doing role plays with groups, whether the training is in person or virtual.

I find that the ability to work on a problem situation with another person in an unscripted format is a great mental break, so I insert several of these into my courses. People really love them and have a great time doing the role plays.

Here is an example of a brief video I shot in Jamaica when I was doing some leadership training for a group of talent development professionals a few years ago. Notice how the participants are having a rollicking good time while learning a significant point about trust.

The trick in designing role plays is to have a twist in the scene that is known by only one of the people involved and that the person is sworn to not divulge. The other person knows there is an elephant in the room, but that is not being shared for some unknown reason.

In this particular role play I pair up someone playing a middle manager with a quality group leader reporting to that manager. Each person gets a write up of roughly 200 words that explains the situation.

In this case, the manager has just promoted a different group leader to the manager level. The person promoted is inferior to the group leader who was passed over, but she is very attractive. The passed-over group leader is furious and wants to pin down the manager for playing favorites.

What she does not know is that the manager was instructed to promote the other person by the CEO and instructed to not divulge this to the disgruntled group leader who was passed over.

What follows is an exercise in what to say when your actions made no sense, but you must defend it on instructions from your boss. Of course, the debrief reveals that the real problem is that the CEO is the one who is playing favorites but he wants his role in the selection to remain hidden. That underscores a problem of integrity and accountability, which destroys trust.

Role plays seem to work to break up the instructional pattern, so people remain fresh for the major part of the content. I also use body sculptures, stories, magic illusions, physical demonstrations, and visual aids to add more spice.

Another technique is to post a photograph or cartoon and ask each individual to write a funny caption. Then they can read their captions to each other.

My rule of thumb, whether in person or virtual, is to not have more than about 15 minutes of content without giving the group a mental break of some kind. This makes the time fly by and keeps the group fresh, because they never know what is coming up next.

One precaution is that there needs to be a significant learning or point in each activity. The activity matters to the entire learning experience. Even though it is fun, it is not just for fun. During the debrief, you point out the main lesson and discuss the significance. For the participants, this allows experiential learning to occur in an atmosphere that is fun and lively.

The preceding information was adapted from the book Leading with Trust is like Sailing Downwind, by Robert Whipple. It is available on

Robert Whipple is also the author of The TRUST Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals, Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online, and Trust in Transition: Navigating Organizational Change. Bob consults and speaks on these and other leadership topics. He is CEO of Leadergrow Inc. a company dedicated to growing leaders.

Successful Supervisor 92 Avoid Playing Favorites

September 8, 2018

In my blog last week, I shared a bit of information on how to avoid playing favorites. This week I want to go deeper into that aspect of supervision, because it forms one of the most significant pitfalls that leads to loss of trust in any group.

First, we need to recognize that we do have “go to people” for certain jobs. It is literally impossible for any human being to not have people they favor over others based on their skills, track record, or any number of other reasons.

It is the appearance of always playing favorites that really causes the damage to trust, but that fact also contains the seeds of how you can avoid the problem. Simply do things that are not in your normal pattern on rare occasions, and people will stop thinking of you as playing favorites. In fact, I like to use the word when deciding to do something unusual.

How do I know?

How can you tell if you are coming across as playing favorites? Keep in mind, there will be a difference between what you think and what other people might observe. In your own mind you are simply selecting the best person to do the job in each case, but if you always make the same call, then it will eventually come across as playing favorites.

It is not just that the person is doing a good job but also the fact that you are noticing and praising the person more than others that exacerbates the issue.

One good way to detect if people are thinking you are playing favorites is to watch their body language when you make an assignment. Another method is to have a trusted employee who is part of the larger group and simply ask that person if there is a problem. If it looks like there may be an issue, here are some ways you can mitigate the angst.

Ways to reduce the problem

Let’s say I wanted to assign a work chore to someone, but I realize that I have gone to this person the last several times this chore has come up. The best approach is to ask myself if I really need to keep going to this person, or if this situation is a lower risk than usual, so it would be a good opportunity to let someone else have a shot at it.

Suppose in this case I have picked up some grumbling about playing favorites. In explaining why I am suggesting a different person than my usual choice, I could explain that I don’t want to appear to be playing favorites and that I believe it is good to have deeper bench strength in the organization. I could also explain it as part of a greater emphasis on cross training in general.

By actually using the word “favorite” I send a signal that at least I am clueless about how people may be feeling. I project the flexibility to allow others to grow if they are interested. If the job is technically challenging, I might offer to have the person who normally takes this assignment train another employee this time around.

This action reduces the image of an heir apparent and simultaneously adds to bench strength. In this case, I m showing a willingness to let others try provided they are properly trained. Allowing people to volunteer also breaks the stigma of playing favorites.

Another typical way of showing favoritism is when a supervisor does not apply the rules with the same rigor for some individuals. If you let a person show up late with no penalty but do write up another individual for the same problem, you are playing favorites in a very visible way.

I do not advocate that you should treat everybody the same way in all circumstances. That is because people have different needs in certain circumstances. However, when it comes to enforcing rules or other policies, you must treat all employees the same way or you will become known as a supervisor who plays favorites.

In summary, playing favorites is a real trust buster, but you can use the techniques in this article to mitigate any damage and still have the ability to use your “go to person” in cases where it is critical to do so.

This is a part in a series of articles on “Successful Supervision.” The entire series can be viewed on or on this blog.

Bob Whipple, MBA, CPLP, is a consultant, trainer, speaker, and author in the areas of leadership and trust. He is the author of four books: 1.The Trust Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals (2003), 2. Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online (2006), 3. Leading with Trust is Like Sailing Downwind (2009), and 4. Trust in Transition: Navigating Organizational Change (2014). In addition, he has authored over 500 articles and videos on various topics in leadership and trust. Bob has many years as a senior executive with a Fortune 500 Company and with non-profit organizations. For more information, or to bring Bob in to speak at your next event, contact him at, or 585.392.7763

Successful Supervisor 22 – Foundations to Build Trust

April 16, 2017

We are all aware of things we can do that build higher trust. In my seminars on trust, I ask groups to name some things that build trust, and they quickly create a list of dozens of behaviors in just a few minutes.

For example, here are a few of the things typically named that will help to build trust:

• Operate with integrity
• Do what you say
• Use the Golden Rule
• Be respectful of others at all times
• Admit mistakes
• Be as transparent as possible

These actions and hundreds of others like them are needed to build and maintain trust at all levels of management. Each level has a different focus on why these things are important, and at the supervisor level employees look for these behaviors constantly.

Because of the span of control, supervisors must be alert to applying these behaviors in a consistent manner to avoid the perception of playing favorites, which is a major trust buster, especially among first level employees.

The conundrum is that while we know numerous things that will build trust within an organization, in most organizations there is still a serious lack of trust.

I believe the reason is that there are four conditions that form a foundation on which all of the other trust-building behaviors rest that makes them work. These four conditions provide a deep understanding of the nature of trust in an organization, so they act like the concrete blocks upon which we ultimately construct a lasting building.

This article will name these four conditions and describe why I believe having this foundation underneath the common behaviors gives them much more power to build trust. Then I will explain why these concepts are just as important at the supervisory level as they are at higher management levels.

Condition 1 – The First Law of Trust

Trust is reciprocal. You trust every person you know at some level, and that person also trusts you at some level. The levels are not always the same, and they fluctuate based on the transactions between you and the other person.

Any communication between the two of you will impact the trust level for both people. It may be face to face conversation, a phone call, e-mail or texting, or even body language at a meeting that impacts trust either positively or negatively.

Trust may go up in one direction but down in the other direction from the same transaction. It is a highly dynamic system.

When you extend more trust to another person, he or she will instinctively respond by showing more trust in you. This “First Law of Trust,” as I call it, is not true 100% of the time, but it is directionally right with such high frequency that it makes a pretty good law of nature.

If you want more trust with another person, find ways to show more trust first.

Condition 2 – Values-based Behaviors

When I begin work with new clients, I always ask if they operate from a set of values. Normally the senior leader is able to produce a list of some values that the group has adopted. Sometimes the values are on a plaque on the wall, and other times they are buried somewhere in a desk drawer.

I then ask the senior leaders point blank if they always follow the values, even when it means making a difficult decision.

The question is usually followed by a pregnant pause and finally someone says, “Well we try to follow the values at all times, but sometimes it is impossible.” While the answer is an honest one, it really signals a kind of hypocrisy that leads to organizational dry rot of trust.

The correct answer must be “yes” at all times in order to preserve trust.

When leaders adopt values they cannot abide by in all circumstances, they set themselves up for failure. That is why one tempting value: “People are our most important asset” is a dangerous one.

If people are really our most important asset, then when there is a downturn in business, we will keep the workforce and sell buildings or other assets to survive. Few companies actually do that, so it is unwise to adopt that phrase as a core value. You simply must abide by the values you advertise or trust becomes a casualty.

The specific values adopted at the supervisor level must mirror the values set at higher levels. There may be some different phrasing to make it apply to first line employees, but the intent needs to add up to the same conclusion or the organization will not be aligned.

Condition 3 – Balanced Accountability

The word “accountability” has become more popular in recent years. It is a shame that in most organizations accountability takes the form of a “gotcha” mentality where all accountability discussions are negative.

My observation is that most people on most days go to work intent on doing the right things for the right reasons. They need to be held accountable in a positive way for the things they are doing right and in a corrective way for the things that did not get done correctly or on time.

If the accountability discussions were not always focused on missed opportunities, then people would not get the impression that the only time they hear from supervision is when they mess up.

I invented the phrase “hold people procountable,” which means that we need to feedback performance that is directionally right as well as the corrective feedback. The nature of the feedback needs to be proportional to the holistic nature of the performance.

This philosophy should be spread across the entire organization, but it is particularly important for the supervisor, who is working at the critical junction between management and the workers. Negative accountability discussions are often the downfall of an inexperienced supervisor.

Condition 4 – Reinforce Candor

This fourth condition I believe has more power to create trust than any other leadership behavior. That is why it is one of the foundational conditions. It consists of creating an environment of low fear where people believe it is a good thing to point out areas where the behavior of higher managers is monitored for consistency.

If something appears to be inconsistent with our values or ethical standards, employees know they will be rewarded rather than punished for bringing it up.

I believe “the absence of fear is the incubator of trust,” and the logic holds at all levels of the organization.

Supervisors can improve the level of trust by making sure all employees know their observations are valued and appreciated. In practice it is not easy to reward someone who points out that some of your behaviors appear to be hypocritical.

Make a special effort to make sure when an employee questions a decision or action on your part that the employee walks away glad that he brought it up.

If the preceding four elements are in place, then I believe the foundation is laid where all the other things that create higher trust will be highly effective.

This is a part in a series of articles on “Successful Supervision.” The entire series can be viewed on or on this blog.

Bob Whipple, MBA, CPLP, is a consultant, trainer, speaker, and author in the areas of leadership and trust. He is the author of four books: 1.The Trust Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals (2003), 2. Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online (2006), 3. Leading with Trust is Like Sailing Downwind (2009), and 4. Trust in Transition: Navigating Organizational Change (2014). In addition, he has authored over 500 articles and videos on various topics in leadership and trust. Bob has many years as a senior executive with a Fortune 500 Company and with non-profit organizations. For more information, or to bring Bob in to speak at your next event, contact him at, or 585.392.7763

Nepotism and Trust

August 2, 2014


Man kissing woman's foot.Nepotism comes from a Latin root “nepos” meaning nephew. In ancient times, it was used to describe a process in the Catholic Church whereby celibate clergy would elevate their nephews to higher position because they had no offspring of their own.

In modern organizations, the practice of nepotism is alive and well, and it can have devastating impacts on trust.

It is interesting because in some cases we tolerate nepotism without question and in others we find the practice repugnant.

Several societies still have a monarchy whereby a person is born into the line of succession. We accept this practice in numerous legitimate societies without difficulty. We also usually accept the practice of passing on a family-owned business to the offspring of the owner.

In business many people struggle with the appointment of a close relative or friend of the family if the person appears to be under qualified for the position.

In most cases, the future of people working in an organization is at least loosely linked to the health of the entity, so when they see a poor match for the job get appointed as a leader simply because of a blood connection, it feels like a slap in the face at best.

The same helpless feeling occurs in the more common practice of cronyism, where an incumbent leader selects a favorite person based on qualifications other than how well the person is likely to perform.

I doubt there are many people alive who have not experienced some form of angst upon realizing they are now reporting to a supervisor who is a poor leader but a close friend of the big boss.

The sad truth is that there is no effective cure for this problem. It can go on at any level in any organization, and it usually trashes trust.

How can leaders do a better job of bringing along new talent if there is favoritism involved? First, you must realize it is a rare situation where there is absolutely zero favoritism.

Few top leaders will promote based solely on the credentials of the individual without regard to the chemistry fit between individuals.

Some form of advantage is at play in nearly every promotion.

I think it would a refreshing change if a leader got up and said, “I am appointing Mark to the job of VP HR. You all recognize that Mark and I have worked together in the past and he is one of my favorite people.”

Being upfront about a slanted call is far better than just ignoring the bias and expecting people not to care. They do care, and the honest approach will at least show some integrity along with a modicum of sensitivity.

One thing to avoid is trying to run a sham whereby the leader indicates several candidates will be interviewed by the team but has already chosen who is going to get the position. That practice is debilitating and is easily detected.

The leader who does this is going to suffer a huge loss in credibility and trust. If you have already made up your mind, do not run an interview process that looks like a fair one because you will be exposed more often than not.

There are exceptions where there is a legal precedent for interviewing several people even if the choice appears to be a foregone conclusion.

It may be an appointment in a government agency or simply an internal company rule that each position must have competition before a selection is made. In these instances, keeping an open mind that a better candidate may surface is the appropriate antidote, because it is often the case.

When trying to appoint a blood relative, it is crucial that the person have at least the potential to do well. There have been numerous examples of a leader bringing in a son or daughter where it led to the demise of the organization.

A classic example was when the brilliant and hands-on leader, Dr. An Wang, appointed his son Fred Wang to succeed him at Wang Laboratories in 1986. The company was losing its technological advantage, and Fred was unqualified to reverse the slide. By 1989, Dr. Wang fired his son, but it was too late to save the company.

Keeping the leadership in the family can work out well if there is adequate attention to the grooming of the individual and if the person has the requisite skill levels in terms of Emotional Intelligence and mental agility.

One thing is for sure, the practice is not going to end any time soon, so get used to that empty feeling of helplessness when you get wind of a future appointment in your organization.

Favoritism is a Huge Problem

July 5, 2010

Playing favorites is one of the most damaging problems in any group of people. Leaders who practice favoritism in the workplace have no chance to build a culture of trust. In business schools, they teach that the antidote for playing favorites is to treat everyone the same way. But this is a trap that can cause problems because it ignores the simple fact that all people are different.

On the occasion of the death of John Wooden, the great basketball coach from UCLA, Tony Robbins re-released an interview he did with John a few years before his death. In the interview, Tony was asking how John dealt with the issue of treating some players differently from the others. John made the following remarkable statement, “treating everyone the same is the surest way to show favoritism.”

The statement caught me off guard because I was always taught that we must treat everyone the same way to avoid the problem of being biased toward one person over another. John was suggesting that exactly the opposite phenomenon was happening. How could this be? To answer this question, we need to consider the nature of favoritism and its implications.

First, it is important to recognize we all have favorite people in our lives. You cannot have exactly the same feelings about different individuals. On some level, you are going to like being with or working with one person more than another. To deny any favoritism within you for other people is to deny your humanity.

So, I have favorites, but does this mean that I play favorites? I think so because I will instinctively want to slant my world conditions to be allowed to spend more time with people I like and less time with people I do not like. Then I will begin to worry that I am not treating people equally and perhaps over compensate to give preference for people I do not like as much in order to not appear biased. After a while it becomes impossible to tell if I am being fair or hopelessly partial.

Getting back to Wooden’s quote, if I treat everyone the same way, I am for sure being biased because each individual is unique. The needs of different people require me to treat them differently. In order to not show blatant favoritism, I must take into consideration individual needs and do my best to treat everyone the right way. This means NOT treating everyone the same way. But then, won’t I appear to be playing favorites to some outside observers. This conundrum can drive you slowly insane.

I believe there are some effective antidotes to this dilemma? Here are some simple ideas that can help:

1. Be aware of the issue of favoritism and use the word when a decision might be perceived as practicing it. Say, “I am asking George to do this budget revision again. Since I have done this in the past, I do not want to be perceived as playing favorites. George has the accounting background to do this work. If others of you would like to work with the budget, let me know and I will help you get some training so you can do it in the future.”

2. Operate outside your normal pattern for some percentage of the time. This allows you the opportunity to show you are not always picking a certain person for assignments. There may be some small risk in doing this, but you can mitigate it by selecting the application to change assignments.

3. Create a culture where cross training of people is routine. In doing so, you develop bench strength, and you can demonstrate less tendencies toward favoritism.

4. Be inclusive rather than exclusive with your language when you address groups. Your choice of words will give away your feelings toward others, so always seek to use language that reflects a broad rather than narrow range of people.

5. Be alert to your own body language. We communicate more through body language than words. It is important to be cognizant of your facial expressions and posture when interfacing with all people to not project a strong bias. If you are the kind of manager who pats people on the back, make sure you do that for everyone when it is deserved.

6. Test for your own biases. Most managers are not even aware of their tendency to play favorites, so it is difficult to see the damage to trust when it is happening. Seek out a trusted individual who will tell you if your actions are being perceived as slanted toward one or more individuals. Caution: do not select one of your favorite people to solicit this information or you will obviously defeat the purpose.

7. Build Trust – with high trust, people understand the intent of actions better and can interpret complex interpersonal issues between people.  If trust is low, people instinctively assume the worst intent rather than the best intent. 

These actions, along with a general awareness, can mitigate the problem of appearing to play favorites. Even though as a human being you do have favorite people, you can operate with fairness and integrity if you do not try to treat all individuals the same way in every instance.