Bosses trying to put together high-performing teams should play favorites with their employees, new research shows.
A study from the University of British Columbia Sauder School of Business found that 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 others in their group.
"Conventional wisdom tells us that we should treat everyone the same to create a collegial and productive work atmosphere," said Sauder professor Karl Aquino, who co-authored the study. "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."
As part of the study, researchers analyzed how preferential treatment from bosses affects a person's self-worth in their job and willingness to conform to workplace norms. In one experiment, the researchers had more than 350 employees complete an online survey that assessed their level of preferential treatment in the workplace. They were also asked to nominate a colleague to participate in a second online survey to report on whether the employee was both productive and considerate of others.
Respondents who received preferential treatment from their bosses reported feeling a greater sense of self-worth in their jobs. Their colleagues assessed that they were both more social and productive.
In another experiment, 41 students were divided into groups of three and asked to provide suggestions via email to a "team leader" for improving education at their university. Participants received a group reply from the leader that included itemized responses to all the members' suggestions. In half of the groups, all recipients received the same response that gave them preferential treatment over their peers. In the other half, the leader's responses showed positive but equal respect for all of the suggestions.
After being surveyed on their willingness to take on a task to benefit a subsequent group discussion, the students who received preferential treatment indicated that they were more willing to take on a group-serving task than those who were treated equally.
Aquino said the study's results show bosses are in a tricky position.
"There's a risk that treating some employees better than the rest can turn others off," he said. "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."
The study, which all appear in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Business Ethics, was co-authored by professors Stefan Thau and Madan Pillutla of the London Business School, Christian Troster of the Kuhne Logistics University and David Cremer of Erasmus University.