When Leaders Do Not Treat Employees Equally

New research by Tse, Lam, Lawrence, and Huang (2013) has discovered what happens when leaders have better relationships with some employees and worse relationships with others. The results are discouraging. When leaders do not treat employees equally, many problems arise, and ultimately job performance may suffer.

When a leader forms relationships of different quality among their subordinates, coworkers are more likely to develop contempt for one another. When we think about coworkers who have better relationships with the leader than we do, we may want to “put down” those people, in order to fight off feelings of inferiority. When we consider coworkers who have worse relationships with the leader, we may think those people have been excluded due to a failing on their part. Perhaps they are unworthy and have not met group standards.

The authors also found that not all people react to these workplace disparities in the same ways. Some people, they say, feel the need to frequently compare themselves to others in order to reduce their own insecurities. People of this kind are more likely to compare themselves with coworkers, and therefore more likely to develop contempt in cases where their coworkers have different relationships with the leader.

What happens when these feelings of contempt develop? We tend to perceive that these other employees are not helping us as much at work. This feeling is associated with decreases in job performance.

This study shows the importance of treating all employees equally. Managers and leaders should try to develop positive relationships with all of their employees, or risk seeing a decline in job performance across their organization. When leaders maintain stronger relationships with some employees than with others, both groups are negatively affected. In other words, when some employees are treated unequally, nobody wins.