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The seductive dangers of favoritism


When the newly elected John Kennedy chose his very young brother Bobby to be the nation’s attorney general, it created a national uproar about the limits of favoritism.  Beyond the fact that Robert had virtually no credentials to serve in the position, it struck many as deeply ironic that one would choose the nation’s top legal officer based on nepotism, all the more so given that one typically wants one’s lawyer to be more an objective observer of the situation than a syncophant.  Kennedy’s sin is not, of course, unique in national politics.  During the Carter years, the legendary scholar of public administration Paul Lorentzen railed against the president’s reliance on politically-motivated appointments, an accusation that was certainly made against the nation’s early presidents and probably against them all.

Favoritism might be understood as inappropriate or misplaced loyalty, creating a situating where decisions are based not, as the old saying goes, on “what you know but rather on who you know,” and it may be the most regular crime of the political class.  Consider the events of simply the last month.  In La Mesa, California, two police officers found a city employee slumped over the wheel of the mayor’s SUV.  The 73-year-old mayor was lying on a nearby sidewalk, both stone-cold drunk.  The cops drove them both home without citation or sobriety testing; last week an independent investigation decided the cops were not showing favoritism.  In Santa Fe, New Mexico a week earlier, a worker in the city street division was returned to the job just a couple days after being arrested in a drug bust.  It turns out his distant cousin is president of the AFSCME local union; he denies showing any favoritism.

The same week President Bush chose a new leader for Housing and Urban Development.  The action was made necessary because Alphonso Jackson, the man who held the post prior, had to be removed after it emerged that he was tilting HUD in an aggressive way to Republican contractors.  As an AP story put it, “Jackson’s problems began in 2006, when he told a group of commercial real estate executives that he had revoked a contract because the applicant who thanked him said he did not like Bush.”  Meanwhile, it was recently revealed that the speaker of the Florida House had slipped language into a state budget to preserve his longtime personal friend’s profitable access to state gasoline contracts.  And just last Thursday, Lurita Alexis Doan was thrown out as head of the General Services Administration after months of criticism that she was favoring friends and illegally luring federal employees into work for Bush’s 2004 reelection campaign.

In many other contexts favoritism poses difficult challenges to organizational cultures.  In one famous sexual harassment lawsuit, Mabel King, who worked at the District of Columbia jail, sued when she was passed over for promotion by a boss who instead chose someone he was romantically involved with.  King argued she was the victim of sexual discrimination.  The case acquired some notoriety when the trial court ruled against King, on the grounds that she was unable to provide direct evidence of a sexual relationship (that ruling was later overruled).   The fact situation of bosses subtly favoring the ones they love is probably unfolding thousands of times a day in corporations and bureaucracies everywhere.

Often, of course, favoritism shows up in more subtle ways, and it is certainly both more defensible and harder to combat when it arises out of intellectual preferences as opposed to, say, sexual ones:  an administrator after long interactions decides that an office or worker or program is “worthless” or a “waste of money,” and so that person or operation remains forever shut out when major resources are allocated, denied a seat at the table where she or he might win the way back into good grace.  If the intellectual judgment is valid (for there are some workers who are incompetent and programs that waste money), then the subsequent freeze out is called good leadership, but if such views are calcified in ways that later preclude intellectual openness to argument, it has become a corrosive form of favoritism.

Several academic disciplines have worked to explain why human beings so often gravitate to favor their closest friends and neighbors, and Jost, Banaji, and Nosek summarized the research four years ago as having sustained the perhaps obvious ideas that “groups serve their own interests, develop ideologies to justify those interests, have strong preferences for members of their own kind, are hostile and prejudicial to outsiders, and are conflict-seeking whenever it helps to advance their partisan interests and particularistic identities.”  But the point of their own work was to stress how such conclusions have been undermined by recent scholarship.  For instance, some have argued that groups at odds with each other actually have more reason to cooperate than fight or stigmatize.  And while individuals do often favor their own groups, there is mounting evidence that stereotypes are sometimes even more strongly held by in-group members than outsiders, and simultaneously that group members often hold very charitable views of other groups (what the literature calls outgroup favoritism).

At the level of interpersonal interaction, such factors as ego, friendship, and a history of trust can culminate in honest mischaracterizations of a situation, producing outcomes distorted by favoritism, cronyism, and what can become over time a culture of outright corruption.  One understandably sees the ideas of one’s friends in their best light, extending a benefit of the doubt that can overwrite the ideas of those less tightly bound to systems of leadership.  It is possible that such preferences result from cognitive shortcuts, maybe the result of evolutionary developments that made it generally prudent to trust one’s friends over the ideas offered by a stranger.  Trust thereby too often trumps reality.

Understandable or not, favoritism is a deeply corrosive social force, and at all levels (family, group, organization, state).  And the consequences are not simply interpersonal.  Serious scholarship now attributes the Asian financial crisis of 1997 to the negative effects of cronyism, which produced a culture that impeded open competition and distorted banking practices where Asian financial institutions mainly loaned money to those with whom they had personal connections.  Several years ago academic argument emerged over the world historical question of the extent to which Philip III’s rule of Spain (1598-1621) was ruined or manipulated by his friendship with Francisco Gomez de Sandoval y Rojas, the First Duke of Lerma.  And corruption is today frequently identified as the main obstacle to democratization.  In the American context, it is not hard to see why work in the federal government can seem so sluggish when a 2002 survey showed that “only 36.1 percent of federal workers thought promotions in their work units were based on merit.”

Some of the oldest conflict stories in human history and many of the most famous are driven by animus prompted by actual or perceived favoritism:  consider Cain versus Abel, Cinderella versus her stepsisters, Goethe’s Faust story, and more recently films like Ordinary People.  We have long understood that actual favoritism destroys cultures and organizations, and that even perceived cronyism can induce otherwise hardworking people to refrain from involvement in what they end up seeing as rigged games.  Performance, morale, and organizational energy is thereby effected, and sometimes eviscerated.

SOURCES:  John Jost, Mahzarin Banaji, and Brian Nosek, “A Decade of System Justification Theory: Accumulated Evidence of Conscious and Unconscious Bolstering of the Status Quo,” Political Psychology 25.6 (2004): 881-919; Jennifer Bercovici, “The Workplace Romance and Sexual Favoritism:  Creating a Dialogue Between Social Science and the Law of Sexual Harassment,” Southern California Interdisciplinary Law Journal 16 (Fall 2006): 183-214; Naresh Khatri and Eric Tsang, “Antecedents and Consequences of Cronyism in Organizations,” Journal of Business Ethics 43 (2003): 289-303; Naresh Khatri, Eric Tsang, and Thomas Begley, “Cronyism: A Cross-Cultural Analysis,” Journal of International Business Studies 37 (2006): 61-75; Paul Lorentzen, “Jimmy Carter Unaware of Alternatives to Cronyism,” Public Administration Review, 39.3 (May-June 1979): 303-304; Canice Prendergast and Robert Topel, “Favoritism in Organizations,” Journal of Political Economy 104.5 (1996): 958-978; Antonio Feros, Kingship and Favoritism in the Spain of Philip III, 1598-1621 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000); Peter Eigen, “Corruption in a Globalized World,” SAIS Review 22.1 (Winter-Spring 2002): 45-59.

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