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Lead Your Team Leadership

Preferential Treatment? Bosses Must Find Middle Ground

Preferential Treatment? Bosses Must Find Middle Ground
Credit: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

Although business leaders shouldn't treat all their employees the same, they shouldn't show too much favoritism to their best workers either, new research finds.

Treating some team members much better, or worse, than others can adversely affect a team's performance. However, treating everyone the same can also harm performance, found a study recently published online in the journal Personnel Psychology. Researchers said the key is finding a middle ground.

Previous research has typically discovered that treating team members differently, depending on factors such as perceived competence, can make teams productive, said Bradley Kirkman, the study's co-author and head of the Department of Management, Innovation and Entrepreneurship at North Carolina State University's Poole College of Management. This study, however, didn't find those results to be true, he said.

"Instead, we found that leaders can go too far," Kirkman said in a statement. "If a leader treats team members too differently from each other, performance suffers."

For the study, researchers evaluated differential treatment by leaders of 145 teams in three Chinese companies. Team performance was assessed through surveys of the leaders. The surveys focused on issues such as the quality and efficiency of each team's work, and the team's ability to meet deadlines and stay on budget. The differential treatment was measured using a scale that assessed the quality of the relationships between team leaders and team members. [7 Common Leadership Mistakes You're Probably Making ]

The results revealed that there is a limit as to how far leaders should go in treating their team members differently.

"If leaders go too far with this behavior, leaders will end up with teams composed of basically two subgroups — the in group and the out group," Kirkman said. "And we know that the out group will not be happy about this and will start to slack off, withdraw from participating and even go so far as to be disruptive to the in-group team members."

This doesn't mean, however, that those in charge should treat all of their employees the same, as this also hurts team performance, the study discovered.

"Leaders need to find a middle ground, or moderate level of differentiation," Kirkman said. "In practice, leaders should not treat all members the same — there needs to be some differentiation based on competence and ability — but they also need to avoid engaging in extreme preferential treatment."

The study was co-authored by Yang Sui, of the University of Science and Technology in Beijing; Hui Wang, of Peking University in Beijing; and Ning Li, of the University of Iowa.

Chad Brooks

Chad Brooks is a Chicago-based freelance writer who has nearly 15 years experience in the media business. A graduate of Indiana University, he spent nearly a decade as a staff reporter for the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago, covering a wide array of topics including, local and state government, crime, the legal system and education. Following his years at the newspaper Chad worked in public relations, helping promote small businesses throughout the U.S. Follow him on Twitter.