One of the questions I ask leaders is “Who do you eat lunch with?” Some eat alone, with clients, or with friends from outside of work, as you might imagine. Others typically eat with their favorite coworker on the executive team. These leaders may ignore or underestimate the negative effect this practice has on other coworkers.
Leaders may not consider eating lunch with friends as favoritism at work, since they’re not technically on the clock during the lunch hour, but it is favoritism nonetheless. And employees pay attention to whom you choose to eat with. If they’re not in the inner circle of lunch-mates, the message they receive is that they are not as important or as close. You may not feel biased against them, but that’s the way they experience your choices.
Some CEOs believe that the inner circle of lunch-mates deserves the lunch privilege because they’re the most trustworthy or productive. This may be true. Maybe these coworkers are the most trustworthy and productive, but how much of that is due to the trust and privileges they receive? Wouldn’t you feel more motivated to produce if you were given a special audience with your boss? Those who feel excluded from your attention, by contrast, may feel less motivated and appreciated. They may be less trustworthy and productive as a result.
Most leaders would prefer to think that they are not in grade school anymore. They’re not, but as long as there is a popular table, people will still feel included or excluded. Spread your attention around. Eat lunch with different people. Don’t always walk into the same office the first thing in the morning. Talk to new and different people, and you will give them something new and different to talk about. Cut down on favoritism at work, and you’ll likely see more and better work from everyone.