Workplace Wisdom

Managing an Employee Who Wants to Impress You All the Time

This article originally appeared on hbr.org.

Every leader knows they shouldn’t play favorites — it can lead to dissatisfaction and discord on a team. There are even some surprising disadvantages for the person who is the focus of the boss’s special attention. But there will always be team members who want to make it into your inner circle, and sometimes a subordinate can be singularly focused on pleasing you and gaining your favor.

This kind of courtship usually comes from fear, and is often a misguided attempt to protect their self-image and their job status. Unfortunately, while they’re obsessing over keeping you happy and tending to nonessential tasks that they hope will reinforce their relationship with you, they may be neglecting their real work and creating friction with their peers. Here are four ways you can redirect this attention back to their performance.

Avoid feeding their need to please. Because of your power and their fear, you may have to watch yourself more carefully than you do with other subordinates. I’ve observed relationships in which pleasers were willing to eat, watch (TV and movies), or wear what the boss liked, all in an effort to create a sense of companionship. This kind of sucking up can become dangerous if the boss succumbs to affinity (or similarity) bias and gives the pleaser more attention because of their supposedly shared likes. One of my clients came to enjoy this kind of “tending” by a subordinate several levels down and it was a tough habit to break. It wasn’t until multiple members of her leadership team came to her and expressed their concerns about the subordinate’s influence that she realized that she had gotten sucked in and needed to reestablish a more impartial relationship.

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Onward and upward —

LK

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