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HRM Divison Seminar Series

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"I can only trust a friend": Exploring leaders' construction of agency through the enactment of favouritism in the workplace

  • From: Wednesday 7 October 2015, 1 pm
  • To: Wednesday 7 October 2015, 2 pm
  • Location: Newton 47B, Newton building, Main Entrance, Nottingham Trent University, City Campus, Goldsmith Street, Nottingham, NG1 4BU
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"I can only trust a friend": Exploring leaders' construction of agency through the enactment of favouritism in the workplace
Ofelia Palermo, Nottingham Business School


The aim of our research is to account for the way team leaders construct favouritism and make sense of their agency role when enacting it in the workplace. The issues related to the agency aspects tied to favouritism offer scope for further research from a theoretical as well as from an empirical point of view. Deconstructing the definition of favouritism from leaders' perspective – specifically with regard to how they portray their justifications, what kind of relationships they establish with their teams, and the implications such aspects exert on their agency role in the workplace - would be a way for gathering detailed insights on this dynamic.

We adopted an interpretivist paradigm and framed our research within a comparative case study design. Our primary unit of analysis was the individual whose accounts we collected through semi-structured interviews. Findings show that our leaders stressed the unintentionality of favouritism and attempted to smoothen the negative connotation of favouritism by appealing to the pursuit of an overall common good. They legitimized favouritism through the construction of discourses aimed at mitigating the tensions between their ethical obligations and their self-interest. ‘Empathy' and ‘friendship' as well as the ‘overarching common good' represented those tension-mitigating discourses.

Our findings suggest that the moral disengagement from the effects of favouritism is what enabled our leaders to discard their agency role in performing it. We argue that the greater attribution of salience to dyadic relations (e.g. between the leader and an individual group member) rather than to pluralistic ones (e.g. between the leader and the collectivity that makes the group) smoothens leaders' perceptions of the implications that breaking the justice rules might exert over others. In this context rather than relating to the group, leaders relate to its individual members. A consequence of leaders interpreting their agency role in light of their interactions with single individuals is that reciprocation dynamics become a key aspect in maintaining relationships at the cost of hindering the collective well-being. We posit that favouritism can strengthen the relationship between single individuals in a group, but it does so at the cost of jeopardizing the effectiveness and balance of the group itself. Although in the short term favouritism seems to be a plausible option for leaders in the name of some ‘overarching objective', in the long term, this choice cannot create sustainable success. On the contrary, it can lead to resistance or disengagement from those who are being discriminated.

About the author:

Ofelia is Principal Lecturer in the Division of Management at Nottingham Business School, NTU, where she also leads MSc International Business courses. Before working at Nottingham Business School, Ofelia was a research assistant and sessional lecturer at the School of Business and Economics of Loughborough University while enrolled as a PhD student there. Ofelia's experience as an academic also interested the Italian and US University systems in the role of, respectively, lecturer and visiting scholar. Ofelia's research interests include: new control mechanisms and new forms of resistance; the construction and interpretation of fear in organisations; and the construction of organisational identity. From the collaboration with colleagues from Portugal and Italy Ofelia's research interests expand also to: managerial performance of favouritism in organizations (in collaboration with Ana Catarina Carnaz and Henrique Duarte, ISCTE-IUL), the construction of gendered-discourse within SMEs (in collaboration with Annalisa Zanola, University of Brescia), and organizational culture and values in small family firms' intergenerational succession (in collaboration with Gaetano Luberto, University of Calabria).

Please book your place by emailing Daniel King

Light refreshments will be provided.

Location details


Newton 47B, Newton building, Main Entrance


Nottingham Trent University
City Campus
Goldsmith Street

Past event

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