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
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
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.
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.
- work management
- spiritual leadership
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?
continually praised and highlighted, perhaps even
sometimes invented out of thin air
ignored, neglected or negated
minimized or negated
continually spoken against and highlighted, perhaps even
invented out of thin air
even when it is not deserved
even when it is not deserved
assignments or duties
undesired assignments or duties
peers with approval of the leader
|Ruled over by
peers with the approval of the leader
|Weak sense of
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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.