Meritocracy Will Lead You Down a Very Dangerous Path

In rapidly growing organizations we always want to attract, engage and retain the best — top performers, highly talented, and unbelievably intelligent with magnetic personalities. This seems ideal doesn’t it? So long as we’re crystal clear on what we deem high performance we’re doing everything we can to keep these people engaged and happy while finding more “just like them”. All you need to do is stroll the buzzing offices of you favourite tech companies and you can feel it, the infectious energy and intelligence all around you. I remember when I visited Harvard University for the first time in the winter of 2012 I turned to a peer and said, “boy I feel smarter just walking down these streets”. We’ve all been in situations like this and for those who work in the tech industry, we secretly desire this.

What I described above is an idealogy of meritocracy. Feel free to Google its definition but I found a good one from Merriam-Webster — check it out here. At its core personal achievement (i.e. performance) and high intelligence are what matter. This seems pretty legit doesn’t it?

Here’s the Problem

Meritocracy believes that if you work hard and have amazing talent you will climb the ladder of success, whatever that might be. This ignores ALL other factors that may potentially impact your ability to climb the ladder — socio-economic status, disability, gender, sexual orientation, etc… What I just described is that meritocracy completely, and I mean COMPLETELY, ignores bias. Regardless of where people live in all four corners of the globe, we are naturally biased. Our experiences, education, social relationships and beliefs influence our biases, for good and for worse.

Emilio J. Castilla, a prominent professor at MIT conducted an interesting study where he explored how meritocratic ideals and HR practices (e.g. pay for performance) play out in organizations. You can view the details here on one of his studies. What he found was that while this organization was fully committed to diversity they had implemented a merit-driven compensation system that was intended to reward high-level performance. Being clear on what constituted high performance and being extremely rigorous in assessing performance was this organization’s way of saying, “we are equitable and reward based on merit”. However, the outcome was that women, ethnic minorities and non-U.S. born employees received smaller increases in compensation compared with white men — same jobs, same supervisors and same performance scores. So what happened?

As I pointed out earlier and worth reinforcing, is the notion that we are naturally biased, and the idea of meritocracy and its rooted belief that it is truly equitable has the opposite effect. It completely ignores factors that can negatively influence our abilities to achieve high performance.

For the record, I am not for one second opposing organizations placing value on performance. What I am saying is that doing so while completely ignoring our biases, and ensuring that these biases do not negatively impact our abilities to be truly equitable is wrong.

So What Should You Do?

Solving this problem is not easy, but you need to start somewhere. For starters, accept that stating you’re a meritocracy likely promotes the fact that you run an inequitable and discriminatory organization. Don’t eye-roll… just accept and own it. Second, train your employees on how to identify bias and what to do about it. Facebook and Google have developed amazing training and resources – Manager Unconscious Bias and Unbiasing. MindTools has some valuable exercises that help (I suggest to have HR help facilitate). This is critically important because as a leader your job is to change hearts and minds of your employees. Third, if one of your core values promotes the idea of meritocracy, change it. It’s not doing you any favours. Fourth, and most importantly, take a hard look at every single management practice within your organization and identify whether or not you are promoting discrimination and bias. If you are change and/or remove it. For example, within your hiring practice use Unbiasify to hide images and names of candidates, or Fortay to drastically improve your objectivity with assessing prospects.

Industry peer Leah Eichler published an article in the Globe and Mail titled, “The Problem with Working for a Supposed Meritocracy” where she expertly demonstrated that a meritocracy is a fairy tale. A key lesson from her article is that we will never be perfect, but at least accept that we have unconscious bias that is likely promoting discrimination and inequity at work.

At the end of the day, those organizations who like to toot their own horns, scream really REALLY loud, tell everyone how great they are and how they’re building amazingly diverse and inclusive companies, likely are not. It’s smoke and mirrors, it’s brutally obvious and I have been around long enough to easily sniff it out.

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