Young employees often enter the workplace with the idea that progression will be linear. It might not be easy, but there’s a clear path to advancement and achieving your career goals. As long as you put your head down and work hard, you’ll get there.
This notion has its roots in the concept of meritocracy. The idea that the best and brightest should be relied upon is one of the key factors in Singapore’s historic success. It’s a guiding principle in culture as well as in business.
Yet as globalization facilitates the diffusion of cultural influences, we tend to get carried away by ‘Westernization.’ There’s no doubt that organizations founded in Europe or the United States have had great success and bear certain qualities to be emulated. But in the process of striving to learn from their practices, we risk losing focus on true meritocracy.
True meritocracy in practice
It seems logical that the best people should rise to the top. They are a source of good ideas and exemplify continuous striving for improvement. Aspiring managers will take certificate courses in entrepreneurship. Engineers expand their knowledge to cover not just design but safety practices. IT personnel learn more about tech-enabled services to diversify the organization’s multi-channel reach.
This system certainly involves a competitive element, but this should ideally be a healthy environment. One that establishes a winner based on merit but doesn’t ‘stick it’ to the loser or deny them further chances to prove themselves and rise above their current position. Ultimately, the competition benefits the organization.
The trouble with many businesses today is that meritocracy is not being practiced properly. While this isn’t endemic to Western organizations, they are seldom grounded in true merit-based principles.
Misleading high-profile studies
Steve Jobs, for instance, was a highly successful yet polarizing figure. He led Apple to the tech industry’s forefront on the merit of his design skills and drive for excellence. Yet as a leader, he was widely criticized for being autocratic and unable to embrace criticism and feedback.
Jobs and Apple are a high-profile success story and invariably will be studied and emulated. But the leadership style of Jobs, and therefore Apple’s practices with him at the helm, aren’t true meritocracy.
Leaders have to be competent, but that doesn’t entitle them to shut down conflicting voices or ideas. People celebrate Jobs for his success, but he was also fired from Apple in 1985 when its stock price fell. It’s the downside of an environment that gives too much control to one man’s vision.
Why the system breaks down
In a real meritocracy, the organization thrives from having individuals pushing themselves and others to be better. Too often, modern companies instead practice a false meritocracy.
In this sort of system, the problem starts with overly simplified merit decisions. Leaders make straightforward comparisons between employees and judge one as objectively better than the other. Winners get even more chances to learn and improve themselves. Nobody wants to invest in, or give opportunities to, the losers. The lack of nuance in the process attaches a certain stigma to them.
Meanwhile, the higher-ups in the food chain feel threatened or insecure by those rising below them. They might seek to diminish their subordinates’ accomplishments, limit their opportunities, or take credit for their successes.
Thus, many companies end up not practicing real meritocracy while convincing themselves of the opposite. And it’s ultimately to the detriment of their success.
Fixing hierarchy, culture, and process
The takeaway for any aspiring entrepreneur or leader is not that meritocracy is somehow a broken system or doesn’t work in a business environment. It’s being implemented too often in a flawed manner.
Rather than trying to abandon or fix the idea of putting your faith in those individuals who are genuinely driven to excel, consider changing the organization’s hierarchy instead. A flatter organization can help untangle merit-based competition with the unfortunate jostling for position, status, compensation, and other incentives that often occur alongside it.
Leaders need to be able to hear different voices from skilled and talented people across the organization. Flattening the hierarchy helps facilitate that. But you also have to create a culture of listening. That starts with the upper management acknowledging that they can’t have all the answers in a constantly shifting world.
Finally, add nuance to the process of merit decision. Recognize that people’s value isn’t a one-dimensional or fixed attribute. They might have a stellar track record but come up with the wrong idea on occasion. Continue to give them chances to contribute, develop, and rebound from that.