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Being the Boss’s Favorite Is Great, Until It’s Not

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We’ve all been in situations where the boss has a favorite. It’s frustrating to feel underresourced and underrecognized while someone else is getting all the attention. Ironically, though, it can be just as challenging to realize that you’re the boss’s new “pet.”

While it’s great to get extra attention and have your work recognized, there’s often a price to pay for being the favorite. You could find yourself at risk in four ways. First, your teammates can start to resent you because of your proximity to power. They may see you as an informant or interloper, stop trusting you, and cut back on the typical mutual support among colleagues, such as sharing crucial information, connections, and other resources.

Next, if you get too attached to your boss, your objectivity and ability to think independently may fade. You can get trapped in a version of groupthink, with a single set of shared relationships. Your joint creativity and decision making will begin to suffer from insularity, and it’s the more junior member of the duo — you — who’s most likely to be found wanting if performance lags.

Plus, sooner or later, you’ll lose your special status. Bosses who play favorites almost always change to new favorites. No matter what perks you’re getting today, your boss is not your friend. As a consultant to senior leaders for more than 25 years, I’ve seen executives swap out their favorites as their own needs and loyalties shift; today’s star eventually falls, and someone new gets to experience both the benefits and the burden.

Finally, being the favorite can derail your goals for professional advancement. This can happen if your boss delegates too many projects to you, leaving you with too little time to do your own work. It can also happen if your colleagues try to use you as a conduit to get their requests or concerns to the boss. Either way, you can end up without the bandwidth to seek out your own projects or skill development. Worse, if you’re too closely affiliated with your boss, you may no longer be evaluated on your own merits. Your boss’s detractors may regard you as no more than a stooge, meaning you risk further isolation and loss of influence if your boss’s stature is diminished in any way.

You can’t just keep your head down and wait things out — you need to be intentional about protecting your reputation as well as your career trajectory. Here are three tactics that will help you endure your stint in the spotlight.

Never oversell your clout. Preserve your role as a team player, instead of acting like the boss’s messenger or sharing confidential information you’re suddenly privy to. Don’t leak information from your boss to the team, and don’t pass along off-the-record information from the team to your boss.

A VP of marketing whom I coached learned that most people don’t like to help someone who makes too big a deal of himself, particularly when he couldn’t deliver consistently once colleagues started to lean on him to speak to the boss on their behalf.

The excitement this VP felt about having access to breaking news was a habit he didn’t want to give up, despite his peers’ obvious resentment. It took several difficult conversations to convince him not to stir the pot by being an unofficial source of “secret” data. Over time, he learned to share fewer indirect criticisms and to give credit where it was due, and his colleagues started treating him as a member of their team again, rather than as his boss’s errand boy.

Preserve — or reinvigorate — your objectivity. Get over any work crush you have on your boss, and interact with other executives to learn from their insights and savvy.

A midlevel executive I worked with had become so closely associated with his boss that he was treated as a minion with nothing to contribute in larger discussions. He felt frustrated and insulted when his opinions were ignored or distrusted as mere parroting of his boss’s views and goals, but he didn’t know how to change the situation.

We looked for opportunities for him to acknowledge and incorporate others’ perspectives, initially with his boss to ensure there were no hard feelings, and subsequently in public. His boss appreciated his growing input and acumen, and over time he got more attention from his boss’s peers and his own.

Protect your career options. Research what your next move could be and find ways to develop relationships with other leaders.

It’s always risky to be too close to your boss, because the situation can change in an instant — from warm and welcoming to cold and distant. If you appear to be spoken for, or if you’re treated as a prized possession, other executives may assume you’re not available for developmental experiences or high-profile experiments. You could be overlooked for opportunities that are available to others at your level.

One of my clients had been told not to consult with other executives by her somewhat paranoid leader. We brainstormed about how she could lay the foundations of relationships with other leaders, even if their work wasn’t directly related, and she spent time outside of her work assignments to keep her skills up to date. Now she’s been identified to participate in numerous special projects, and other senior leaders have expressed interest in having her join their projects or teams.

Sometimes, though, your boss simply won’t loosen the leash. Depending on how controlling — and how dependent — your boss is, even these approaches may not work quickly enough for you. If you’re feeling forced to function too much as a trusted sidekick and not enough as a whole person, it may be time to consider looking for a new opportunity, one where you can operate more independently and succeed through your own efforts.

But before you do anything drastic, talk with past recipients of your boss’s favoritism whom you trust, and learn how they managed to stick it out. If you have an active, trustworthy HR department, ask about the typical career development and growth paths for someone in your role. HR may have suggestions to help you survive being the “beneficiary” of your boss’s partiality. Apply these approaches, and you can successfully survive the mixed blessing of getting your boss’s extra attention.

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