The Barnabas Ministry

Favoritism
Favoritism is a natural but sometimes destructive trait. This article will examine this prevalent practice and its impact upon all parties involved.

What is favoritism? As Merriam-Webster defines it:

The showing of special favor : partiality

At its core, favoritism results in making a decision based not upon there merits of the matter at hand, but upon some other basis. It should also be clear that it has both a positive and a negative aspect to it-- favoritism can result in both favoring and “un-favoring."


At the outset—in many areas of life it is natural and reasonable to have favorites. We all have favorite foods, colors, hobbies, and ways of relaxing-- to name a few. These are an expression of our individuality and freedom. This freedom and variety is part of what makes the world a good place. We are all free to prefer one thing over another in these areas, and more. For example, I like corn and dislike cauliflower. This is a personal preference; I would not suggest that “corn is better than cauliflower” on the basis of my preferences.

Things get a little trickier when we bring this inclination of favoritism into personal relationships. It is somewhat natural to have some people to whom we may gravitate, and others towards whom we may not gravitate. The factors that determine what might make one person a friend and another person not a friend are varied and individual-- anything from appearance, manners, common interests to more dark and selfish things like what a person can do for you.

Favoritism is a bit of a two-edged sword in this area; hopefully in life everybody finds a way to develop some satisfying, favorite relationships. But we all have been hurt at one time or another by being somebody's "unfavorite." We have also probably hurt others by not making them a favorite.

Favoritism is also somewhat restrictive. Nobody has the capacity to be the favorite in too many relationships. If everybody is a favorite, then nobody is a favorite.

The point of these observations is that favoritism, even in interpersonal relationships, isn't necessarily a bad thing. Such favoritism is somewhat necessary, serving good and useful purposes. It's important to keep this in mind as we delve further into this matter.


Destructive Favoritism
There are some areas where favoritism in interpersonal relationships utterly destructive. Some examples include:
These might be classified as “leadership roles.” Now certainly leadership in these areas requires decisions about people in the group. For example, in deciding which person gets what role there must be some assessment of the role, other possible roles, the qualifications and capabilities of the people, and matching up the roles with the people. Sometimes this can be difficult. The Bible informs us that the church is made up of diverse people with diverse gifts, and that all are necessary (1 Corinthians 12). It is evident that this describes any group.

The destructiveness of favoritism in these areas ought to be obvious with a little thought. A short look at the Biblical stories of Isaac and Jacob and their families shows how damaging parental favoritism can be.
We all have probably experienced situations where there was a “teacher's pet” in school, where work managers favored some employees over others, sports coaches favored some players over others, and spiritual leaders favored some church members over others. And in each of these situations, there have been "unfavorites"-- people who were picked on, unfairly punished or singled out, or the like.

What are some of the acts of this destructive favoritism?

Favorite
Unfavorite
Good points continually praised and highlighted, perhaps even sometimes invented out of thin air
Good points ignored, neglected or negated
Bad points minimized or negated
Bad points continually spoken against and highlighted, perhaps even invented out of thin air
Given credit, even when it is not deserved
Given blame, even when it is not deserved
Rarely blamed
Rarely given credit
Liked
Disliked
Given desired assignments or duties
Given undesired assignments or duties
Rules over peers with approval of the leader
Ruled over by peers with the approval of the leader
Strong sense of belonging
Weak sense of belonging
 
What makes the prospect of favoritism in these areas so destructive is that everyone has a right to expect that the work of leadership or management is performed with integrity- that the results of the manager's assessments of roles and people are fair and reasonable and in a sense “best” for all. When favoritism becomes a part of this dynamic, the integrity of the whole system collapses.

Hierarchy vs. Favorites
Closely allied to the idea of showing favorites is the notion of showing preferences. A leader may establish some hierarchy and let that hierarchy “make the decisions” for him. If done with integrity, this can simplify the task of management. The hierarchy may be fluid, based upon past performance, present performance and future potential. It may also be weighed with the deliberate intent to even things out over time so both desirable and undesirable tasks are distributed evenly and that is truly works out for the best for all involved. It may be created with a design to increase the performance of all over time, developing each individual along the way.

The leader may be reluctant to make changes to the hierarchy because it has been constructed with many complex considerations in mind. This may allow people opportunity to fail without fear of loss of position, but he should take care lest he be unable to make proper changes to the hierarchy when needed. But it is important to know the difference between a legitimate hierarchy as a management tool and a hierarchy based upon favoritism.

Why Pick Favorites?
Management is hard, demanding work. A manager is judged by the effectiveness of that management. Why would a manager risk his own success by deliberately doing something that is not “best” for the group, and in a sense best for all?

There are four reasons I can think of.

First, the manager may hope to get something in return for the favoritism shown. It could be a reciprocation for a favor owed, or a hope for a future reciprocation.
An example might be that a pastor of a church is careful to make sure certain people are happy, because if they are not they might make trouble and perhaps even cost the pastor his job. But if they are happy, they may ensure a steady contribution of funds and rally others to support the pastor's leadership.

Second, perhaps the goals are not the same to all observers. Perhaps the real goal of the group is ensuring that certain individuals are utilized or promoted in a particular way. In a sense, showing favoritism is part of the mission of the group. If this seems a little crooked, it is. But nobody should be naïve about the possibility that such arrangements exist in organizations.
An example might be that a certain individual has a connection to a higher-up person, and the higher-up orders his underlings to promote this individual so that it reflects well upon the higher-up in some way beyond the mere performance of the task at hand.

Third, it is a result of laziness or incompetence. A manager unwilling or unable to perform the work of management may revert to favoritism and simply hope for the best.
An example might be that a group member may be riding upon past achievements but no longer is producing, but the manager is too distracted or not alert enough to notice it and take appropriate actions.

Fourth, it can be the result of simple human liking or disliking. To some degree this is a failure on the part of the leader to lead with integrity and not allow these preferences to creep into the work of management. But leaders are human and they make mistakes.
An example could be a leader making some members of the group his friends and showing them preferential treatment.

The Damaging Effects of Favoritism
By the very nature of things, chances are that if a group is led with favoritism, it "benefits" a small portion of the group. The rest of the group is unhappy about it. Of course, unhappy people generally don't do things very well, and it is unlikely that the happiness of the group will improve with favoritism in place. 

It is bad enough that favoritism results in a significant number of people in the group being treated as “unfavorites” and the success of the group is jeopardized. But the destructiveness of favoritism goes beyond this.

The prospect of becoming a favorite is too enticing for most people to resist. It mimics love, to which all of us are attracted. But it is not based upon truth and integrity, so it is bound to disappoint eventually.

Members of a group where favoritism is practiced are likely to strive to become favorites instead of doing their best. They will also probably try to remain favorites and keep others from becoming favorites. This is a terribly destructive dynamic. Instead of becoming good at the matter at hand and improving themselves, they are now playing a different game.


Since the goal of the group is becoming a favorite, once a member has become a favorite no further effort is needed. Those who are favored can lose incentive or motivation to do their best, no longer being accountable to the group and its leader for their performance.

But it will take a while for a favorite to realize this. Some may not realize it until the leadership changes and they realize their “favorite status” was not based upon performance but upon mere prejudice of the previous leader. It is interesting to watch when leadership changes in groups that have a heavy favoritism component, people strive to get on the good side of the new leader.

Those who are not favored are also likely to lose incentive or motivation to do their best, because no amount of performance can make them a favorite (just as no lack of performance caused them to not be a favorite). People don't want to necessarily be favorites; they just want to do a good job and be appreciated for it. But when favoritism is present in the culture, unfavorites cannot be recognized for their good actions without upsetting the favoritism mechanism that is in place. Recognizing their good actions would expose that the group is off-track and make the leader look bad, so it is evident that the favoritism-showing leader has every incentive to avoid this.

When leaders show favoritism, it distorts their perception of reality and they lose touch with the group of people they are leading. They no longer manage the group; they simply entertain themselves with their status as favorite-makers and receive whatever reciprocation that may be due. They may fool themselves into thinking they are gaining experience in leadership, but they are not.

From the position of the one in leadership, showing favoritism is an act of destruction. If a leader consistently does things based upon favoritism rather than what is best for the group, the group will eventually fail. Once a leader starts doing things out of favoritism, he may be trapped into doing it over and over again out of an effort to maintain consistency and "save face." Failures brought on by favoritism can have a “train wreck” scope of ugliness about them. It is one thing for a group to do its best and come up short; it is another thing for a group to not even be playing the right game.

In the end, showing favoritism creates a disincentive for each member of the group to do their best. It also sends the group down a path that will one day expose the group's corruption and lack of integrity.

I am fairly certain this is but a short list of the long-term destructive dynamics of groups where favoritism is practiced. But we can be sure of one thing- in a group where favoritism is shown, neither the group nor its members will ever reach the potential they otherwise could have. And sooner or later, the practice will be shown for what it is. If the law of reaping and sowing applies (and it does), those who sow favoritism reap destruction on many levels.

Justifying Favoritism
As destructive as favoritism is, attempts to justify it are absurdly baseless. But that doesn’t stop people from doing it.

I've heard people justify the selection of their favorites as “so and so is better” at whatever. Does this stand up to examination as a legitimate reason to show favoritism?

At the core of this defense is the appeal to objective truth-- that the leader has acted based upon merit, not upon some other consideration. If there are objective measurements of performance, then whether one member truly is better than another is evident. But in cases where the measures of performance are subjective, the basis for anyone to say anybody is any better than anybody else is ambiguous at best.

Another common justification of favoritism is past performance and experience. This is also an appeal to a objective criteria. For example, an employee may have done an outstanding job on a critical project a few years ago and subsequently vaulted into “favored” status. But how does this justify favoritism today? What matters today is, can the person do the job today? Neither the leader nor the group member can afford to rest on one’s laurels of past performance without jeopardizing performance today. Our society is but the latest to pursue the "have it made" status; this has been a human trait for a long time. When leaders treat group members as though they have it made, they are showing favoritism. Nobody ever has it made.

Justifying Favoritism in Churches
Churches and church leaders have a particular problem in justifying favoritism. One criteria that seems to matter in many churches is the idea of “how spiritual somebody is.” The “more spiritual” have a higher standing than the “less spiritual.” This spirituality might be measured in varying ways-- anything from spending more time reading the Bible, praying, involvement in church activities, developing close relationships with the leaders, or the like. But it can also be an area ripe for the use of favoritism.


We ought to be careful assessing "who is more spiritual" since such a criteria is absent from the Bible. Instead, the scripture speak of either being spiritual or not being spiritual. Further, Paul said the spiritual man is not subject to any man's judgment (1 Corinthians 2:15). From the New Testament we can see that people ended up with all sorts of roles at the call of God in a particular circumstance, rather than as a result of decisions by a control-oriented leadership.

Perhaps people mean "more spiritually mature" when they speak of someone being "more spiritual." But even then- this is difficult to assess. The scriptures speak of the mature and the immature, but attempting to discern the more mature among a group of mature Christians seems out of scope of the New Testament.

Sometimes church leaders can also give the impression that their subjective judgement (i.e, use of favoritism) is somehow less subjective because of how spiritual they are (and again-- on what basis is the leader more spiritual?). They may present themselves as "God's anointed" or the like and attempt to promote their subjective judgments to objective judgments.


Less arrogant but just as dangerous is the idea of attributing decisions to God. Statements like, “God has raised up so and so for such and such” are made. What audacity to put God's name on a human decision! Now is it possible that God wants a thing to happen? Sure, but people don't know those things for certain. Instead, leaders ought to say, “We believe that God has opened the door for … “ or the like (ref. Acts 15:28). Just because something happens doesn't mean it is God's will or that God endorses it. Using that “logic,” one could argue it was God's will for the Holocaust or the 9/11 attacks. It also makes me wonder where those folks are when the decision turns out to be a bust; will they ever say "God blew it" or do they just try to save face by spinning it into "God moves in mysterious ways?" 

I don't see a problem with a church leader just saying, "I want to do such and such" or "I chose so-and-so because I thought they would be the best person for the role" or "I chose so-and-so because I have a good relationship with him." Honest human decision-making is acceptable in the church. There is no need to promote it as the product of some objective, unbiased process unless the leader is trying to avoid responsibility for the decision.

Dealing with Favoritism
Favoritism is such a destructive force, significant effort should be invested to prevent it from taking hold in any group. But people are human, so we have to expect it will appear from time to time.

In addition, some people and groups are so dysfunctional or dishonest that favoritism is an intrinsic though hidden part of the group. Integrity is not part of what matters in these groups, and trying to change them is like trying to change the leopard's spots. The best one can do with these situations is see favoritism for what it is, and protect oneself from it either by dissociating from it or some other means.

For groups that seriously want to avoid favoritism, there are several steps that can be taken. Changing leadership can eradicate some aspects of favoritism, but this is drastic and brings many negative effects. Experience has shown that often this just sets up a new go-round of seeking favor all over again.

A better approach would be to use objective measurements as much as possible, and to remove conflicts of interest for those exercising management. If the objectives of the group and the performance of individuals are clear, then there is much less room for showing favoritism.

Group leaders can benefit from relationships outside of the group that can assess their engagement on the task of leadership. Leaders who are burned out, lazy, frustrated or the like are less likely to be engaged as effective leaders and more likely to be tempted to use favoritism or other shortcuts in their leadership.

While it may sound odd or counter-productive, leaders should avoid being overly friendly with members of groups they lead. Those friendships can lead to favoritism being both sought and shown.


If there is no way for the leader to receive reciprocation, then that removes one of the chief corrupting factors that leads to favoritism.

For group members, all must realize that being a favorite might be enticing, but it is poison. If your objective is to be good and successful at what you do, you do not want to receive favoritism. You want honest measures, honest assessments, and fair opportunities to perform. If a favorite-maker can give you “favorite” status based upon something other than what you have done, they can also take it away based upon something other than what you have done. And if being a favorite matters to you, then someone can use giving or withdrawing their favor to control you.

It is repulsive to see some shown favoritism, but do not desire or envy that favor. Favoritism is a form of flattery; it is a slippery slope that leads to destruction. Do not get enticed into playing that game, because it will keep you from being your best.

Scriptural Considerations on Favoritism
As mentioned earlier, favoritism is a form of flattery-- telling somebody something that isn't exactly true for some other benefit. Other scriptural concepts potentially related to this are deception/lying, partiality and people-pleasing. The Scriptures contain many warnings about these dynamics; here are some:

Do not follow the crowd in doing wrong. When you give testimony in a lawsuit, do not pervert justice by siding with the crowd. Exodus 2:2

Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly. Leviticus 19:15

Then Peter began to speak: "I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right.” Acts 10:34-35

For God does not show favoritism. Romans 2:11

I charge you, in the sight of God and Christ Jesus and the elect angels, to keep these instructions without partiality, and to do nothing out of favoritism. 1 Tim 5:21

My brothers, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don't show favoritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in shabby clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, "Here's a good seat for you," but say to the poor man, "You stand there" or "Sit on the floor by my feet," have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? James 2:1-4

Yet at the same time many even among the leaders believed in him. But because of the Pharisees they would not confess their faith for fear they would be put out of the synagogue; for they loved praise from men more than praise from God. John 12:42-43

Help , Lord, for the godly are no more; the faithful have vanished from among men. Everyone lies to his neighbor; their flattering lips speak with deception. Psalms 12:1-2

A lying tongue hates those it hurts, and a flattering mouth works ruin. Prov 26:28

He who rebukes a man will in the end gain more favor than he who has a flattering tongue. Proverbs 28:23

Conclusion
Favoritism is not as simple a concept to address as one might think. There are many cases where showing favoritism is necessary and good, or at least morally neutral. Showing favoritism is natural and reasonable in many areas, so it can creep in subtly to areas where it does not belong. Both leaders and members of groups need to be wary of this.

It takes special consideration to discern between toxic favoritism and legitimate methods leaders may use to fulfill their role with integrity. Objective measures are particularly important to removing the opportunities to show favoritism, as are removing potential incentives for leaders or managers to receive benefits as a reward for showing favoritism.

Leaders of groups need to resist the temptation to use favoritism as a short-cut for leadership. They must remain persistently engaged on both the mission of the group and the performance of the individual members. They should endeavor to use objective means for assessing performance as much as possible, and cultivate relationships that can help provide objectivity. In the end, leaders who do the hard work of leadership with integrity will have better results and receive more respect and appreciation than those who show favoritism.

Members of any group need to reject receiving favoritism as an objective. They should pursue excellence in their endeavors, not seek the praise of others. They should be wary of those who might flatter them and instead seek out those who seek their best interests. They should value caring, honest, objective truth about their performance and capabilities.


Favoritism cannot be eradicated from life, but being aware of its good and bad aspects equips us to deal with it in a healthy way.

Copyright © 2011 John Engler. All rights reserved.

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