Workplace Doctor: Prove your worth to show you belong

I work in a small team of 10 and have noticed that our manager picks favourites. A couple of my co-workers receive preferential treatment over the rest of us. They get taken out for lunch by the boss, have cosy chats around his desk and go out together a lot in the evenings. Yes, they are all friends, but it appears to be easier for them to get what they want when they want. Am I just being paranoid or do I have a right to be concerned? NM, Dubai

Like many workplaces there are some group dynamics in your team that reflect a culture of favouritism; there is an in-group and an out-group and unfortunately you are in the out-group. Those in the in-group are often seen to have more social influence than those outside it, and the outsiders are often perceived to be less connected to the heartbeat of the business.

It is interesting how seemingly sophisticated “adult” working environments full of educated people where complex business decisions are made can so easily resemble a school playground. Favouritism at work is always enjoyable for those in the know and extremely challenging for those outside the inner circle. Playing favourites can also actually damage the business by not giving the best people the opportunity to shine. Also, by not treating everyone equally, your manager is at risk of creating resentment that can demotivate employees.

Although it seems unfair now, there are ways that you can proactively manage and learn from this situation. Rather than being concerned, be observant and consider how you can proactively build connections and strengthen relationships. This is a skill you can then draw upon across your life and career.

I really believe in authenticity and being yourself at work, as putting on an act to appeal to your boss and colleagues can leave you drained, out of synch and even more dissatisfied. However, see if you can seek some common ground with the boss, which may involve you “borrowing” a few behaviours that you see from those in the inner circle. Are there any common interests that could spark the connection? It reminds me of pretending to enjoy a particular sport at school or a computer game just because everyone else did and it gave you something to talk to people about the next day.

Secondly, you may find it more comfortable to try to connect with someone who is in the “in-crowd”. Again this could be through social relationships and common interests, or through identifying a project or an opportunity that would allow the two of you to work more closely together. This could then help you stand out more to your manager.

Trying to seek common ground with the boss or members of the “in group” should work in your favour in the short term, but meaningful relationships at work are built over a longer period. Think about building your credibility with your boss and the organisation through a combination of building good relationships and letting your hard work, attitude and dedication speak for you.

Your boss may still invite certain people for lunch or out after work, but when thinking about a promotion or new project, he may use his head rather than his heart and offer opportunities to someone who has shown value to the business and is a consistently high performer.

I also encourage you to become comfortable with your role within the team. You may not necessarily be the most social or connected member, and nor deep down do you want to be. Your role could be to generate ideas, or bring the enthusiasm and energy at the start of a project, or act as the implementer who translates things into action. So as well as looking to build your relationships and credibility, you should also think about harnessing the strengths you bring to the team and focus on these.

Doctor’s prescription:

Not being one of the in crowd can be tough and in the short term building bonds with members of the in group may help. However, hard work and dedication can speak for themselves, especially when we fully utilise the strengths we bring to a team environment.

Alex Davda is a business psychologist and consultant at Ashridge Business School, based in the Middle East. Email him at for advice on any work issues.

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