Many executive coaching clients have expressed frustration recently that people think they're playing favorites. They didn't realize that how — and with whom — they spend their time sends powerful messages.
Leaders often forget they're in an "invisible spotlight." Their teams notice their choices, including who gets the most face time with them. I’ve seen situations where high performers may get less formal meeting time because they are self-sufficient go-getters, but their leaders may engage in far more informal hallway conversation with them or choose to sit by them in meetings.
Frequent access to a leader can be seen as a form of recognition. That's true even if the time is for legitimate business reasons: problem solving or coaching and advising that individual. But others may believe that the team member gets more of your time for other reasons.
Making two small shifts can help you use your time in the way that you need to, with fewer questions about favoritism.
First, proactively share your priorities and what’s front and center for you. Don't assume that your team knows why you're interacting more with some people than with others right now. A quick explanation — like "You'll notice I'll be meeting a lot more with the marketing team over the next couple of weeks while we make some important organizational changes" — goes a long way.
Second, even though you have certain priorities and issues that need attention now, still reach out to others on the team. Focus more on the quality versus the quantity of time you spend with them. It can be a quick check-in to see how things are going, to ask what they need, and to let them know what’s going on in your world. The point is to touch base without investing a lot of time, and to maintain an important connection. A regular cadence of one-on-one meetings with each of your direct reports can also help with optics and with allocating time to each person.
This week, think about how you've been spending your time lately and what signals you might be sending — directly or indirectly.
If you'd like more tips on managing the "invisible spotlight" and the messages you send as a leader, pick up a copy of my book “Show Up. Step Up. Step Out.” You can download five free chapters now.