In most cases, your boss is the person with the most influence over your ability to succeed at work. So it can be demoralizing and career-limiting when they appear to favor a colleague over you. Also, it’s a politically precarious position to be in: If you confront your boss, they’ll likely deny any favoritism, while making you appear insecure and resentful of your teammates.
But workplace favoritism is highly common, despite anyone gaslighting you into thinking it’s all in your head. In fact, a recent study showed that more than half of executives admit to having a favorite when deciding on internal promotions.
While it’s challenging and dispiriting to see your boss give preferential treatment to a colleague, even when you’re performing well, here are four strategies to protect your career and sustain your motivation to succeed:
Test your assumptions by overdelivering on expectations for a set timeframe
The conventional wisdom on “managing up” when you have a problematic boss is to work harder toward making them successful. This strategy works in some situations, but some bosses may still offer no reciprocation for your tireless efforts. We suggest working smarter to gain their acceptance, but as a “timebound mini-experiment” to gauge their response so you can avoid overdoing it to your detriment.
One of our coaching clients, a VP of IT, struggled to become a trusted adviser to her SVP boss, who seemed disinterested whenever she met with him, yet was uniquely cheerful and attentive in the presence of other colleagues he managed.
The SVP’s inconsistent behavior felt unfair and hurtful to the VP, but she decided to experiment with three new approaches for three months, to observe whether there was any room to influence him differently.
First, she proactively looked for opportunities to give him vital information ahead of time. Second, in her briefings, she prepared him with only details that would be most relevant to his product line goals, not every little technical issue. And third, she started her one-on-one meetings with an intriguing strategic and non-IT-centric business topic to show her awareness of broader implications for him beyond her department’s work.
For example, she would bring some research to him on a topic and say, “I don’t know if anyone has shown you this [forward-looking information] yet, but I thought you might want to consider it for your fourth quarter plan because others have been including it.”
At the end of the three months, he was more willing to engage with her, so it seemed the experiment worked. For other leaders, such an approach may not change their boss and may even push them away further. If you encounter this result, it’s time to pull back a bit from over-attending to them and focus your energies on preserving your self-worth.
Stay out of the drama
It’s not uncommon for people to view their boss and colleagues the way they do a parent and siblings, often finding themselves engaging in similar interpersonal dynamics and triggering personal reactions.
Resist falling into competition with your colleagues and consider that their relationships with your boss are their business, not yours. Instead, remind yourself of your strengths and double down on the things you do well to preserve your self-efficacy.
One leader we coached had a boss who was never satisfied with her work, yet was effusive in recognizing her direct report. As much as this mystified her since they were on the same team, she told herself, “I’m not going to let him unravel me, no matter what.”
She decided to be at peace with his behavior and instead focus on her leadership mission, building the best team she could, and achieving unquestionable results together. Even with her favored colleagues, she chose to coach and collaborate generously and refused to let her boss’s divisiveness “get her off her game” as a leader. In time, she developed a strong leadership brand in the company without engaging in drama, and eventually, her boss moved on to another role anyway.
Consider the upside of not being the favored direct report
Your colleague may look like he has a great working life because of the boss’s favor but he likely struggles with his situation. For one thing, many employees who are overly favored or have apparent personal relationships with executives outside of work feel like others discount their accomplishments and assume their success has nothing to do with their talent.
Also, these favored direct reports often experience the opposite burden of being ignored or ostracized by their boss: They are over-relied upon, with expectations of 24-7 access, unconditional loyalty, and flawless performance that they can’t escape.
It can help to adopt this perspective when you feel inferior to your colleagues in the boss’s eyes. You may be better off being in a neutral position with your boss than being the overall favorite, particularly if your boss has not matured as a leader who knows how to respect their team members equally.
Continue trying to influence your boss, but diversify your lateral and upward relationships
As long as you decide to remain in your company, it’s smart never to give up trying to develop trust and influence with your boss, regardless of their flaws. But avoid being singularly focused on their approval, because in some cases, their favoring others may have nothing to do with you. So, trying too hard to impress them may be a waste of energy and distract you from building other relationships for your future.
One media conglomerate we consulted had undergone a merger of three separate brands. Favoritism among leaders emerged because they gravitated to colleagues with shared work experiences from the “old company.” The antidote for the employees who felt out of favor was to start cultivating new relationships beyond their existing reporting structure, so they could establish their brand in the new company. Of course, we advise that you first seek out relationships that do not pose a threat to your boss. But overly focusing on one boss’s approval without broadening your network will keep you from developing your political capital for future career success.
Today, the leading reason behind people quitting their companies is feeling a lack of appreciation. So it can be painful to see your boss providing your colleague more attention and affirmation than you, even when you are performing well in your job. But following these strategies can help you navigate this challenging dynamic at work, knowing that even if your boss doesn’t come around, their actions don’t have to stifle your career success.
Nihar Chhaya is an executive coach to the C-suite and leaders at global companies, including American Airlines, 3M, Cigna, Coca-Cola, Cox Communications, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon Technologies and more. You can access his tip sheet on delivering tension-free feedback to your team and receive his monthly newsletter.
Dorie Clark teaches at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business and has been named one of the Top 50 business thinkers in the world by Thinkers50, and the #1 Communication Coach in the World by the Marshall Goldsmith Leading Global Coaches Awards. She is the author of Entrepreneurial You, Reinventing You, and Stand Out. You can receive her free Stand Out self-assessment.