Meritocracy Kills

Meritocracy kills

The deserving do not get what they deserve

It is a common belief that even in a difficult economy, people who are deserving of a good job, of fair pay increases and of significant development opportunities will receive them, and as a result, rise to the top.  This is not so and I will share why.

The competitive landscape

Talent supply and demand are one of the major challenges emerging from the continuous worldwide economic, political and business upheaval. Jobs are more scarce. Competition for good jobs, for promotions and for better living wages has created a competitively harsh battlefield.

Popular media and many politicians are reinforcing the concept of meritocracy by arguing and promoting the notion that anyone can make it to the top by virtue of their hard work and positive attitude and that’s how successful people did it in the past.

But if this were true, we wouldn’t see increasing levels of poverty and a disappearing middle class, not to mention a virtual explosion of the gambling business, people buying lottery tickets and governments using lotteries as a significant source of revenue!

Believing meritocracy works

Erick Schmidt, CEO of Google said, “Lots of people who are smart and work hard and play by the rules don’t have a fraction of what I have. I realise that I don’t have my wealth because I’m so brilliant.”

The belief in meritocracy is a fallacious, albeit alluring, idea.

The term meritocracy is generally applied to a system that rewards those who show talent and competence as demonstrated by past actions, competitive performance and results. The term “meritocracy” was first used in Michael Young’s 1958 satire, a book entitled Rise of Meritocracy, which describes an unlikely future in which one’s IQ and effort determined a person’s social status.

Proponents of meritocracy argue that it is more just and productive, allowing for distinctions to be made on the basis of performance. When meritocracy is implemented in organisations, though, it invariably results in hierarchical structures.

The book by Lawrence Peter, The Peter Principle, points out that meritocracy promotes individuals based on their ability to perform their prior assignment, not their current or future ones. This is often the cause of serious problems. In fact, how often do we promote people who, after a short period, expose their ineptitude in their new, “merited” role?

Second, you absolutely cannot reduce a person’s value, potential and untapped talent to a single letter or number on a merit scale, based on scant observation data and even worse, quite often based on personal biases and cognitive traps.

An article in The Harvard Business Review by Nigel Nicholson, professor of organisational behaviour at London Business School, points out that it is a damaging myth that meritocracy in organisations equals quality and efficiency.

Prof Nicholson says “in the kind of meritocracy that companies try to implement, people progress linearly:  The very best alpha sits on high, with a team of betas reporting to him (occasionally her), all the way down to the omegas working the machines and dealing with the customers.”

Why meritocracy does not work

In fact, I believe that the concept of meritocracy, as touted by many companies and politicians, does not work for two key reasons:

First, it ignores the fact that peoples’ value or talent depends on circumstances and on several factors, namely:

  1. the organisational environment (enablers and de-motivators);
  2. one’s immediate manager;and I might add
  3. one’s immediate manager’s boss!

Everyone has unique capabilities that have to be constantly assessed and valued; it takes a manager’s time and effort to do so and every organisation’s environment can be either a performance enabler or a performance detractor.

Second, you absolutely cannot reduce a person’s value, potential and untapped talent to a single letter or number on a merit scale, based on scant observation data and even worse, quite often based on personal biases and cognitive traps.

In a linearly competitive patriarchal, hierarchical structure, every manager will be intent on improving themselves instead of dedicating a great deal of their time in trying to bring out the best in others and coaching others towards paths of excellence. These managerial actions should be, in my view, the real focus and “merit” of a good manager! But it is seldom so. Why is this dysfunctional approach so popular? Because the rigid, linear, hierarchical model is neat, clean, and most of all, easy to administer and to explain.

That is why it has held sway in human society for thousands of years. We have been enamoured with corporate hierarchy whose genesis comes directly from ancestral primate instincts for contest, dominance and military pecking orders – in essence, the “traditional obsessions and addictions of men who feel safe in a patriarchal order”.

A true meritocracy, however, would acknowledge all workers’ multiple talents and untapped potential. It would take into consideration that we live in a dynamic and uncertain world, and that structures are (or need to be) fluid and changing. It would be comfortable with fuzzy hierarchies and it would promote the notion that spontaneous self-organising teams and projects can be extremely valuable.

Working hard

“Working hard” is often quoted as being part of the merit formula. But what do we mean exactly by “working hard”?
The number of hours we spend to reach a result?
Energy spent?
Time in the office?

There is absolutely no correlation between hard work, value, quality and economic success. In fact, in relation to economic merit, it could be argued that people who work the most hours and spend the most energy are usually the poorest.

In attempts to promote meritocratic formulas, people have also said that moral character and integrity are important for economic success. Sadly, there is little evidence that being honest results in economic success.

In fact, the reverse might be true, as seen in the examples of Enron, WorldCom, Arthur Andersen and the numerous Wall Street frauds and schemes. White collar crime in the form of insider trading, embezzlement, tax and insurance fraud – these are hardly a reflection of integrity and honesty.

The propaganda around meritocracy, however, seems to be conveniently sustaining a myth that disguises economic inequality.

In these glaring examples, playing by the rules probably worked to suppress prospects for economic success. There are certainly many other honest, ethical and transparent organisations who do just the opposite and create human environments where talent is nurtured, recognised, rewarded fairly and developed, and where unbiased managers invest time in encouraging, coaching and modeling excellence. This then is the pool of organisations that might provide leadership in the area of true merit-based people development practices.

What do we need to do?

It’s up to us – HR business partners – to promote equality and fairness and to help create systems with the least amount of human subjectivity. We must do our best to institute such best practices where every deserving employee has the same opportunities for growth and every employee receives true, objective recognition correlated to their performance and potential by a well-informed, unbiased human team.

We are not there yet.

The propaganda around meritocracy, however, seems to be conveniently sustaining a myth that disguises economic inequality. It also prevents progressive government and institutional initiatives from addressing the issue.

Moreover, so many self-help gurus help to perpetuate the fallacy of meritocracy by convincing their clients that anyone can make it to the top with hard work and by attending a workshop on being positive.

When meritocracy is used just as a convenient, promotional sound bite, it kills!
It kills motivation to stay with an organisation.
It kills managerial credibility.
It kills opportunities for talent development and growth, and ultimately, it kills the economy.

A lot more work needs to be done to ensure that people – all people  – have equal opportunity to be recognised and the opportunity to showcase their talents at the highest level possible. A lot more work needs to be done to ensure that people work in supportive environments led by a non-patriarchal leadership team who does not find comfort in the rigidity of pyramids and hierarchies. Only then will true “merit” work!

The world is not a meritocracy, as much as we may like to pretend that it is. And we have a long way to go before we really reward people based on their own merit – Malcolm Gladwell


#meritocracy #HRBP #bias

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