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How to deal when your boss plays favorites

It’s unfair and shouldn’t happen, but if your boss seems to be passing you over in favor of someone else, here’s how you can keep your career from tanking.

How to deal when your boss plays favorites
[Photo: rawpixel.com/Pexels]

It’s human nature to have preferences.

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At work, however, this natural tendency can quickly become toxic if preferential treatments are coming from the boss.

Especially if you’re the one suffering at the expense of favoritism.

In the best case scenario, your boss’s favoritism will pass without negatively impacting your career growth. In a more sinister case scenario, the favoritism continues on far too long and your professional growth suffers. You are kept out of secret meetings and brainstorming sessions. You don’t get assigned projects that can help you grow. You aren’t given credit after working hard on an assignment.

After awhile, the unfair treatment could end up damaging your ability to succeed.

“It’s really important to approach this kind of scenario with integrity and maintain a sense of confidence,” says Donna Sweiden, executive career coach at CareerFolk LLC. “Don’t let it become a chip on your shoulder, even if it might be difficult, but rather continue to engage in the work and this might be tricky because of the constant rejection.”

In order to persevere, below are four ways to handle not being your boss’s favorite:

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1. Be straightforward about what you want

Maybe your boss resonates with your coworker. Maybe there’s something about her that reminds your boss of himself. It doesn’t matter because you can’t do anything about it. What you can control, however, is how you react to it.

One way to deal with this situation is to “deal with the little things instead of the big picture,” says Barbara Pachter, business etiquette expert and author of the book, The Communication Clinic: 99 Proven Cures for the Most Common Business Mistakes. So instead of focusing on the fact that your boss is playing favorites, turn your attention instead on what you want that you aren’t getting. If you want a special assignment, do your homework, go in, and ask for it.

If there’s a career goal you’re trying to reach, tell your boss about it, and then ask advice on how you can get there. The most important thing is to be straightforward. Otherwise, it might not be that your boss is playing favorites, but rather they just don’t know what you want.

“It is possible that the way you’re speaking up, or the way your appear when you’re speaking up can seem wishy-washy,” warns Pachter.

2. Go above and beyond

You can’t control your boss’s bad behavior, and focusing on it will only eat away at your psyche and defeat you. Instead, focus on improving yourself. Eventually others will notice the good work you’re doing.

Pachter advises putting everything into your work and going above and beyond during this painful period. Get in early and stay late. And if you can stomach it, consider what it is about your boss’s favorite that has earned them special treatment. Is there anything the favorite is doing that you can learn from?

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3. Assert yourself

If you continue to do good work, you have to trust that eventually others will notice. And they might even notice your boss playing favorites, if the behavior is overt enough. One way to help people notice the good work you’re doing is to advocate for yourself. What are you doing to build your reputation outside of your department? Are you getting involved in projects with others who can vouch for your work? Can you get a mentor who can help support your career growth? Finding different avenues to success may take a bit more time and creative energy when you don’t have a boss who supports you, but eventually, articulating and advocating your values is something you’ll have to consider if you want to get the attention you deserve.

4. Manage up

At some point, if your boss’s preferences are no longer something you can ignore, then it’s time to manage up.

“Obviously you can’t go on this way,” says Sweiden. “You will have to figure out a way to develop some kind of relationship with the manager.”

She adds: “Ultimately, it’s less important that people like you, but building a workable relationship is very critical because when things get difficult, you need that relationship, that foundation, to talk things out.”

However, if you’ve tried building a trusting, cordial relationship with your boss, but they’re just, quite frankly, a jerk, then it might be time you communicate this to them.

Sweiden advises asking for advice in a nonthreatening way, like “How am I doing?” By involving your boss, you’re acknowledging their expertise and also communicating that you’re on the same team. You can also bring up the fact that you’ve noticed the favorite has received X,Y, Z opportunities and you’d like to know how you can also get similar opportunities (assuming you are equal in competence and diligent). Next, be very clear on the opportunities you want.

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Whatever you do, always try to separate your emotions from the conversation, especially if the favoritism has gone on for some time and has festered into loathing.

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About the author

Vivian Giang is a business writer of gender conversations, leadership, entrepreneurship, workplace psychology, and whatever else she finds interesting related to work and play. You can find her on Twitter at @vivian_giang.

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