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How to Succeed When You’re Not the Boss’s Favorite (HBR)

Five strategies to boost your career prospects when your boss has a favorite - and it's not you.

Five strategies to boost your career prospects when your boss has a favorite - and it's not you.

(Originally published in HBR. Image: Tjitske van Leeuwen Photography/Getty Images)


Favoritism is a widespread and often unspoken reality in the workplace, stealthily diminishing job satisfaction and team morale. The problem is bigger than you may think.


One study showed that 56% of managers had a favorite in mind for a promotion before the formal review process began. At the end of the process, the pre-selected favorite received the promotion a stunning 96% of the time. Eighty-four percent of managers also conceded that favoritism plays a significant role in determining who gets promoted. The shift to hybrid and remote work has amplified the problem by intensifying issues of proximity bias.


Favoritism often goes unaddressed despite potential legal ramifications and damaging effects on job satisfaction, motivation, team morale, and performance. Often subtle and subjective, favoritism can be hard to pinpoint and quantify. Preferential treatment can also be so ingrained in the organizational culture that it’s the norm, and if exhibited by top company leaders, the issue slips further under the rug. Moreover, fear of negative ramifications often deters employees from raising concerns.


These factors can leave you feeling alone and unsure of what to do when your boss plays favorites. Here’s how to navigate this complex and challenging environment and improve your prospects.


Manage your emotions.

Feeling passed over for desirable assignments, recognition, or promotions can understandably trigger feelings of unfairness, insecurity, and resentment. While these feelings are natural, getting distracted by them may hold you back.


Between our inherent negativity bias and common thinking errors, it’s easy to feel like the situation is worse than it is; for instance, magnifying one negative comment from your manager while filtering out all their positive remarks. When we feel threatened or stressed, we’re more likely to fall into these mind traps, which can create a debilitating negative spiral and lead to self-defeating behaviors, like shutting down or reacting poorly to your boss. For your mental well-being, performance, and relationship, it’s essential to loosen that emotional grip.


Identify your feelings and accept them as valid to reduce their potency. Also, consider the possibility that you don’t have all the information, and look for counterexamples or instances where your boss has treated you especially well.


Finally, try not to take the situation personally. While it’s no excuse, favoritism often has more to do with your boss maximizing their self-interests, being more comfortable or familiar with the other person, and lacking awareness that they are favoring specific individuals due to their implicit biases.


Observe and adjust.

Feeling unvalued and overlooked may make you dislike your boss and want to vent to colleagues or confront your boss. However, your best move is to conduct yourself as though favoritism doesn’t exist and seek to cultivate a stronger relationship.


Observe which topics spark your boss’s enthusiasm and how they communicate. Consider how you might show interest in these areas and adapt your communication style to be more effective. For example, suppose they light up when thinking big picture and you’re more detail-oriented. They’ll likely find conversations with you more energizing if you first address the overarching goals or vision and link the details to these broader objectives.


Put yourself in your boss’s shoes and consider their goals and pressures. Are there ways you can make their life easier or help them shine in their boss’s eyes? Also, focus on what you like or appreciate about them. Liking works reciprocally, so if you want your boss’s approval, start by liking them. Look for what you have in common. Perhaps you have similar-aged kids, like the same sports team, or share a love for live music. Foster conversations around those common areas to deepen your connection.


Finally, observe what the favored colleague does well that makes them successful with your boss. What can you learn and emulate to become more effective? Discard any resentment you harbor and invest in your relationship with this colleague. After all, if the boss’s favorite thinks highly of you, it may also improve your boss’s image of you.


Adjusting your style to match your boss’s preferences doesn’t make you a brown-noser; it just makes you more effective. Even if you never become their favorite, it behooves you to improve this vital relationship.


Communicate proactively with your boss.

When you feel like you’re not favored, you may hesitate to proactively communicate with your boss, worrying that you might be a bother and worsen your relationship or that your attempts will be futile. However, a passive approach will result in missed opportunities for growth, clarification, and relationship-building.


Even if you’ve worked together for a while, clarify their expectations of you. Many bosses are unclear about their expectations, and misaligned assumptions may underlie your troubles.


Inquire about their general expectations – like the contributions they want from you in your role and what kinds of problems they like to be informed about – and their specific ones. For example, as you begin a new project or task, ask questions like “For this to be a great success, what specific aspects would you want me to include?”


Regularly request performance feedback, particularly if in-person interactions with your boss are infrequent, to compensate for the lack of informal exchanges. Again, ask specific questions like, “What are the top areas you think I can improve the most?” Pressing them for the specifics means you can more easily action their suggestions. While receiving constructive feedback is inherently stressful, you may learn what’s in your way.


Finally, respectfully advocate for your needs and growth interests, such as professional development opportunities or stretch assignments. Managers can’t read your mind, so being direct is crucial, especially if you work remotely. In a recent survey, 42% of managers indicated they sometimes forget about remote workers when assigning tasks.


Make your achievements more visible.

The notion that “good work speaks for itself” is appealing but idealistic. In truth, it’s unrealistic to think your boss will notice all your talents and achievements without you highlighting them.


While you don’t want to be boastful, you must make your hard work and accomplishments known. For example, you might summarize your achievements in weekly updates to your boss via email, a shared document, or during your one-on-ones and by highlighting your team’s work in meetings. Dual-promotion, or complimenting a colleague or peer while talking about your own accomplishments, is also effective. Describe your actions, emphasizing the positive results and impact they generated for your organization.


This isn’t self-aggrandizing, and most managers are happy to have more visibility into the activities and results of their team members. Further, your ongoing documentation is a valuable tool for performance reviews and resume updates, and may offer an essential sense of internal validation in this scenario.


Nurture your internal network. 

Developing a strong network can boost your job performance and satisfaction and is vital to your career success. It’s even more crucial if you’re not receiving guidance, recognition, and opportunities from your boss.


To expand your network and visibility, seek opportunities to contribute outside your specific job responsibilities. For example, are there cross-functional projects that align with your interests or skill set? Participating in these initiatives will help you showcase your skills more broadly and build relationships with other senior leaders and peers at your company. Seek your boss’s approval first so they’re not caught off guard. Alternately, consider engaging in company-wide initiatives such as committees, task forces, or events. These forums offer opportunities to interact with other senior leaders and peers in a more relaxed setting.


Lastly, seek mentoring opportunities through formal mentorship programs by identifying or cultivating relationships with leaders whose career paths or skills align with your aspirations.

A robust internal network can be a rich source of new insights and guidance and offer a much-needed boost in job satisfaction. These connections may also provide advanced knowledge of job openings, which is invaluable if your situation doesn’t improve.


Staying positive and motivated is tough when your boss has a clear favorite, but disengaging will only exacerbate the situation. A positive, beneficial relationship with your boss is still possible, even if you’re not the favorite. However, moving on could be the best step if your consistent efforts remain unrecognized and unrewarded. When you do, you’ll leave with valuable experience gained in tough conditions, a strong track record of results, and a supportive network ready to back you.

 

With daily fires to fight and limited space to think, I understand how the pressures rob your clarity. As a certified executive coach, I help senior leaders and their teams gain fresh perspective, confidence and new capabilities that accelerate their success. Work with Dina

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