As an idea, meritocracy is a powerful one. In a meritocracy people get ahead based on their abilities, effort and intelligence. They don’t rely on who they are or who they know.
They earn it.
Not surprisingly, this ideology has seeped into companies and the world of work. Many companies aim to hire based on merit. Reward based on merit. And promote people based on merit.
And, in theory, this should be a good thing. Because relying solely on merit, and ignoring people’s gender, race, sexuality, socio-economic status, etc, should eliminate the need for diversity policies.
But what happens in reality?
As you’ll see in the articles below, the idea of a meritocracy tends to discount the role of luck. Also, because of our inherent biases, believing in a meritocracy actually leads to unmeritocratic results and inequality.
Given the prevalence of the idea of meritocracy in our society, it’s worth understanding why. Why it doesn’t work. Why it increases inequality. And why you should question whether it deserves a prominent role in your company.
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This video provides a good overview of what meritocracy is, and what it hopes to achieve. It also places it in historical context, and has some interesting observations as to how it differs from what came before - aristocracy.
For example, if we believe that people’s good fortune is truly deserved, then by extension we must believe that people are also responsible for their failures. By discounting luck, meritocracy gives people an element of personal validation - that they deserve what they have.
However, the noblemen of the past, who inherited everything, could not claim it was due to anything other than the luck of their birth. And at the other end of the spectrum, there was no shame in being a peasant. They were considered victims of the bad luck of their birth. And seen as unfortunate, not failures.
In theory, if a company evaluates people based on their skills, abilities and merit, without consideration of their gender, race, sexuality, etc., there should be no need for diversity policies.
But a number of studies have shown that, in reality, this isn’t the case.
An MIT study reviewed almost 9,000 support staff at a large service company. The company was committed to diversity, and had implemented a merit-based compensation system to reward high-performance and treat all employees equally.
But the researchers found that white men received larger pay rises than women, ethnic minorities and non-US born employees - despite holding the same jobs, working in the same units, having the same supervisors, the same human capital, and importantly, the same performance score.
Based on these results, the researcher and a colleague set up a series of experiments to see if organisations that promoted meritocracy actually accomplished the opposite.
Each experiment had the same result. When meritocracy was emphasised as a core value, people in management positions gave a larger monetary reward to a male employee than to an equally performing female employee.
The researchers termed this counter intuitive result “the paradox of meritocracy”.
This paradox of meritocracy builds on other research showing that those who think they are the most objective can actually exhibit the most bias in their evaluations. This is because they believe they aren’t influenced by bias, and as a result don’t look, or compensate, for their own biases.
So by emphasising meritocratic ideals, these companies create the belief that employees are impartial, which creates the conditions for explicit and implicit biases to go unchecked.
👉You can find more details on the experiment here
Most people believe that merit, rather than luck, determines success and failure in the world. But is this true?
If you think about what merit is, clearly there is an element of luck in terms of who you are born to, where and when. And, of course, how intelligent you are. Our genes and upbringing both make a difference.
But people don’t just get lucky in terms of the merit they receive - they also get lucky in terms of whether there is an opportunity to benefit from that merit.
So, it’s unlikely that people are as responsible for their success, or failure, as we may think. More worrying, is that studies suggest believing in meritocracy makes people more selfish, less self-critical, and even more prone to acting in discriminatory ways.
On the other hand, remembering the role of luck increases generosity.
As a balance to the previous articles, this one is all for meritocracy in the workplace.
To the author, a meritocratic workplace is one where everyone has the right to express their opinions and are encouraged to share them openly and often. Those opinions are listened to, and decisions are then made based on the best ideas.
But, it’s important to understand that a meritocracy is not a democracy. Not everyone has a vote. While everyone has a voice, some are listened to more than others.
At the author's company, Red Hat, the people who are listened to are the ones who have earned the right. They have built a reputation and history of contributing good ideas, going beyond their day jobs, and achieving stellar results.
My reservation with this approach is whether it actually works. For example, when a woman voices an idea in a meeting, will she get credit for it? Or will the credit go to the man that repeats it?
And does this also mean that the leaders the company has are there by merit only? Do we believe that there are less women and minorities in leadership roles simply because they don’t have good ideas and ‘stellar’ results?
👉It might be worth pointing out that at Red Hat UK 11.6% of top positions are held by women.
It’s easy to see why people find the idea of meritocracy appealing. When we think of it we often imagine moving beyond where we start in life, of fairness and hard work paying off.
But all the evidence shows that this is far from the truth - and that meritocracy actually leads to inequality and unfairness.
For while we’d like to think we’re responsible for our own success, ultimately luck plays a role. Your genetics and the school your parents sent you to matter. As does where you went to college, who you met there, and whether you graduated during a recession or economic boom.
For example, consider two graduates, one with a first class degree, the other with a second class degree for the same course. If the student with the second class degree supported themselves by working part-time, and the other student relied on family support and concentrated solely on their course work, who actually achieved more?
In short, it’s an uneven playing field. We’re not all coming from the same starting point - and that makes a difference. We should recognise it, and account for it.
How we do this is the challenge. Effort should be rewarded. We just need to think more broadly about what has been overcome - not focus solely on the end result.
That’s all for the moment. If there’s a topic you’d like me to cover I’d love to hear it - you can get in touch here.