Why You Should Play Favourites

I’ve noticed something interesting about who I spent my time with in my Scout Troop. I’ve always had at least one kids that was high-maintenance. Doctors & school principles are especially fond of sending boys (it was mostly boys) with behavioural challenges to us, since the discipline will do them good. Not being in the suburbs means we also recruit many single-parent families or inner-city kids. I’ve had years where over half of the boys and girls were on medication, in counselling, physically disabled, developmentally challenged, or more than one of the above.

So out-of-control kids are sent to us for the “discipline”. This is ironic, because the best Scout troops are self-disciplined. Discipline isn’t imposed from the outside, by the grown-ups. The discipline comes from the Scouts themselves. Just like in the best work environments, sport teams, army units, or community organizations, the leadership comes from within the group.

I’d been fed up with always chasing the problems. I wasn’t spending time the way I wanted to – developing good citizens by exposing them to the outdoors. I was being a substitute parent, counsellor, and medical dispensary. I was stuck in basic maintenance mode, instead of doing the fun, outdoor, exciting challenging things the boys and girls would remember for the rest of their lives. Some kids started to drift away, because nobody was giving them the guidance and coaching they needed to advance in the program or do the fun, outdoors activities they had come for.

I started spending more one-on-one time with the kids who came ready, wanted to earn badges, were having fun, and were willing to do all the work it takes to get ready to go to camp. I figured out what made them tick, what it was about the program they enjoyed, what they wanted to do, what they wanted to change. I started giving those kids extra responsibility to take charge of the things they wanted to do, and they ran with it.

That’s when something interesting happened. Many the problems I’d been chasing started taking care of themselves. The “best” Scouts started to exert peer pressure to make the others fall into line. They didn’t want all their hard work spoiled by somebody else who was acting up. Kids who’d previously been challenging realized that if they still wanted my time & attention that they’d have to act more like the others.

If you think this kind of focus doesn’t apply to the workplace, you’d be wrong. In the Gallup Organization’s book “First, Break all the Rules What the World’s Greatest Manager’s Do Differently”, one of the keys they found to supporting superior performance in a team was to focus on the best performers. Instead of spending a lot of time and energy trying to take below average staff to average, the best managers spend their valuable time helping their best performers become outstanding.

This is counter to the conventional wisdom. As managers we assume, or even just told, that we’re good managers if we can somehow make a star performer out of everybody on the team.

This just doesn’t work. Great managers realize they can’t make other people change. They can only bring out the natural talents that their employees and staff already have. Sometimes that means figuring out what those talents are and how to use them. Sometimes it means finding a different job where their talents are better suited. They realize it’s just egotistical and cruel to try to make somebody be good at a job they don’t like or believe in.

Figure out what makes the good ones good, by whatever measure is right to your organization and team. Remove obstacles. Leverage their strengths and reward them by paying more attention to them. Figure out how to improve the rest of your team by what you learn from the best, instead of focusing on what’s broken. Learn to hire for the talents that work best in your business or for that job.

Focusing on what’s working right is the best way to develop your entire staff. It will give you the biggest return on your time spend. Investing in your best is the fairest thing to do, for them and for the entire team. Don’t your best performers deserve your time and attention?

Play favourites.

7 thoughts on “Why You Should Play Favourites

  1. Bern,
    Here’s an anecdote for your book. (?!? I didn’t realize you were writing one). In my workplace, we used to share a computer between two people whose desks were adjacent. When we had money in the budget allocated for computer upgrades, my boss decided to buy 10 new computers, and in the interest of fairness, she decided they would go to the most senior people. Problem was, the most senior people did not use their computers very much (nor did most of them care if they had a computer dedicated to their individual use) and the same people were sitting adjacent to each other, too. Newer people who did a lot of work on computer (ahem) were constantly nipping over to the desk of a senior person to get some work done. It was (is) disruptive, distracting, and caused a certain amount of ill-will that could have been avoided if my boss had allocated the computers more sensibly, albeit less “fairly”.


  2. Bernie,

    I agree with your concepts here but it only works if the manager is concerned for the business rather than his/her own career. Too often in big organizations managers are looking up the ladder for themselves regardless of who is helping them get there. In public service it is more about making sure that costs are reduced and maintaining a similar level of service. Thus managers are rewarded for making the bottom line smaller rather than improving the functionality of the unit. This in turn leaves a leadership vacuume and the employees are neither interested or willing to do tasks for the manager. Esentially the group mirrors the manager in the way that if the manager doesn’t care either does the working group.

    I beleive this to be a systemic problem left over from the past 50 years or so of getting ahead which really had an apex in the 80’s with the Me-generation and business models that, unlike business of the early 20th century, simply used workers rather than nurtured them. Loyalty is a two way street and business is more often interested in bottom line.

    Further to this is when decisions are made that come from the highest levels of management that run counter to the running of the organization with the expectation that the lowest level workers can do a 180 degree change in the matter of weeks. The political masters have sway much of the time and if the Deputy is weak then the organization becomes reactive to the political whim.

    So I agree with you that managers need to support their best people but at the same time they must risk their own jobs to do so. From a military perspective, I sure as hell don’t want to go over the top if my officer does’t want to, but if he is willing and I believe in him, I’ll follow. Loyalty is earned.


    1. The other symptom of what you describe was the chatter in the last decade about how we all have to manage our own careers. Which is another of signalling to employees and staff that “we the company officially can’t be bothered to care”. It will be interesting to see what the fall out is after the recession and it’s aftermath. It will be interesting to see which companies do or don’t survive, and what the conventional wisdom says about how you should treat your employees then.

      Still, we can sit and mope about the things we don’t control, or we can look around and figure out what we can and do control. I can and do control my own behaviour, actions, and words. I control what I deliver, and when, and how good it is. I have influence over my relationships and reputation. I choose which stories I tell myself about what happened, and what I’m going to do about it.

      The example I’m thinking of is General Rick Hillier, Canada’s former Chief of Defence Staff. He re-inspired a military, and re-established it’s reputation among Canadians, by being blunt, honest, and at the same time never losing his self-respect or dignity.


  3. One of my friends took me to task yesterday about, well, I’m not sure what about exactly. Not caring about the boys that needed the most help.

    In the end, in order to be of the most service to the troop, I let go of the idea, the judgment, that some boys were “good”, and some were “bad”. I had to let go of the notion that I could fix them, and focus on doing what I could. Which was to support, coach, and encourage the ones that were most ready.

    By doing this the entire troop, including the ones that I had previously labelled and needy or challenging, got better. The kids that were ready were able to bring along the kids that hadn’t been. Everybody benefited, including me.


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