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Commentary: Favouritism an office vice that will never disappear

Leaders persist in offering preferment to people who are most like them, says the Financial Times' Andrew Hill.

Commentary: Favouritism an office vice that will never disappear

A man talking to his colleague. (Photo: Unsplash/Rawpixel)

LONDON: In The Favourite, the award-winning film set in the reign of Queen Anne, the decisive shift in the British monarch’s patronage is summed up in one glorious line, spoken by Emma Stone’s Abigail Masham as she confirms the banishment of her rival, the Duchess of Marlborough: 

All I know is your carriage awaits and my maid is on her way up with something called a pineapple.

Rarely have office politics been so wittily and decoratively exposed. An omnipotent but vulnerable chief executive is courted by competing lieutenants bent on keeping or gaining the power and perks that come with the boss’s favour.


In an age when companies are trying to write algorithms to take the bias out of hiring, you might expect the choosing of favourites to become confined to period drama. 

Yet while business drones on about the tools it uses to pick the best people, people at the top persist in picking people who are most like them, or — worse — who like them most.

By indulging this last group, leaders fuel the sort of poisonous fug of gossip and intrigue explored by The Favourite.

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This bias defies easy criticism. The emergence of favourites is murkier than nepotism and cronyism. 

If, for the sake of argument, a US president appoints a relative or friend to a senior position, it is usually easy to spot. Even the long-term preferment of a wider cohort of employees can be laid bare, as the requirement for companies to publish their gender pay ratio has started to demonstrate in the UK.

Complaining about individual favourites, though, is difficult and dangerous.

Accusers always look petty — or merely identify themselves as hoping for preferment for themselves.

In the worst cases, the favoured one turns out to be incompetent. Often, though, he or she has genuine qualities. Rachel Weisz depicts the Duchess of Marlborough in the film as a skilled politician and administrator, running rings round most of the men who hold official titles.

The biggest deterrent to complaint is that an attack on the treatment of an alleged favourite is an attack on the judgment of the most powerful person in the organisation, and who dares question the sovereign’s choices?

This is one reason why favourites are studied more closely in history books than management manuals.

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The most frequently cited piece of research seems to be a Georgetown University study from 2011, which exposed an unsurprising gulf between senior executives who had witnessed favouritism (92 per cent), and those who admitted to practising it (23 per cent).

Otherwise, public sightings of fights over business favouritism are as rare as the practice itself is common. When cases do surface, analysis tends to be confused by innuendo and (as in the court of Queen Anne) suspicions of sexual intimacy.

The snag is that leaders do need to choose favourites. Selecting talented people to encourage and promote is arguably their most important task.

George Washington chose Alexander Hamilton to join his staff because he recognised that he needed his skills as a French-speaking military tactician in the war he was waging.

This is one example of successful “sponsorship” picked out by the Center for Talent Innovation in a new study of how executives can gain by investing in promising proteges.

The study points to how Anne Mulcahy, former chief executive of Xerox, brought Ursula Burns into her leadership team.

I saw this positive sponsorship in action when I visited Xerox in the early 2000s and Ms Mulcahy took the opportunity to present the woman who eventually became her successor. Yet I’m willing to bet there were some at Xerox who resented what they saw as favouritism.

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Three precautions prevent this sort of accusation from sticking.

One is to favour only people whose skills and qualifications are manifest.

A second is to seek out difference rather than similarity. Even now, when sponsorship programmes are well-established at many large companies, fewer than a fifth of protégés have management styles, skills and networks different from those of their sponsors.

The third is the clearest, and yet the hardest to sustain: Try to be open. “When sponsorship is made more transparent, people understand it isn’t favouritism,” says Pooja Jain-Link, CTI head of research.

It’s a formalised process and relationship where the sponsor and the protégé can openly speak about each other in those terms.

Even with these precautions in place, picking favourites, in its darkest form, is likely to remain the most durable of office-political vices, because it is one of the most human. Some people will stop at nothing in the hunt for the corporate equivalent of a pineapple. “As it turns out,” muses Abigail Masham, in The Favourite, “I’m capable of much unpleasantness.”

© 2019 The Financial Times Ltd.

Source: Financial Times/sl