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Guest Blog: ​What is workplace meritocracy? Is it a good or bad thing?

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We're always looking for contributors to our content channels and Adam Candidate Dakota Murphy has stepped up with this interesting piece on meritocratic culture in the work place.

A meritocracy is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as ‘a society governed by people selected according to merit.’ The example sentence given is this:

‘Britain is a meritocracy, and everyone with skill and imagination may aspire to reach the highest level’.

In the late 1950s British politician and sociologist Michael Young wrote a satirical book called The Rise of Meritocracy. The word became synonymous with the unprecedented social mobility of the 1960s. At that time, meritocracy embraced the idea of equal opportunity (particularly in education) and the decline of the aristocracy.

Back in 2016, Theresa May gave a speech at the British Academy in which she said that a new wave of grammar schools would give every child the opportunity to receive a good education and create a ‘truly meritocratic Britain.’

Critics have challenged the terminology, arguing that meritocracy (particularly with regards to May’s vision of the education system) is nothing but a dystopia in which biological merit is all.

When it comes to meritocracy in the workplace, there are mixed views on whether or not the system actually promotes increased opportunities and fairness for all. Let’s take a look at what workplace meritocracy looks like.

Workplace meritocracy: what it is and what it isn’t

In business, a meritocracy generally means that each person’s performance and talent is used to hire, promote and reward, without any recourse to sex, race, class or nationality.

In a meritocracy everyone’s views in the workplace are valued. Everyone is encouraged to express an opinion without fear of negative consequences. And while decisions aren’t made by consensus, the idea in a meritocratic workplace is that everyone’s views are heard. Involving everyone in the workplace is today seen as one of the top goals for fostering a positive culture.

Meritocratic workplaces operate performance reward systems. Employees are judged on effort, skills, abilities and performance alone.

Meritocracy isn’t a majority rule. There’s no consensus on decision making and while everyone’s views are valued, not everyone has a vote.
So, while a meritocracy is often lauded as the best form of people management, the ideas of some individuals can be tuned into by management more than others.

Who benefits from workplace meritocracy?

In a business culture of meritocracy, employees earn respect for their hard work and ideas and are promoted into positions of greater responsibility as a direct result. This type of environment tends to suit
capable individuals best.

What are the advantages of a meritocratic culture in business?

Meritocratic cultures encourage the free flow of ideas. It is an environment conducive to innovation. Within a workplace where there is an open exchange of ideas, individual passions can be identified and those
employees can be placed on those tasks. The best people are then promoted based on their talent.

Setting up a meritocratic culture doesn’t require a great deal. It’s simply a matter of introducing processes and monitoring and evaluating outcomes. It’s all about people analytics, which is a big part of HR these days.

What are the disadvantages of a meritocratic culture in business?

Organisations with a merit-based culture intend to increase opportunities and fairness. But according to research, merit-based practices don’t always promote equality in the workplace and may be inadvertently disadvantaging women. See more about the research and The Paradox of Meritocracy in Organisations here.

This research carried out by Emilio J. Castilla of MIT’s Sloan School of Management found that organisations adopting meritocratic cultures were more likely to engage in non-meritocratic behaviour.

Challenges in meritocracies revolve around whether or not people are on an equal playing field to begin with and the possibility of biased attention given by managers to certain individuals in the business.

Nigel Nicholson, professor of organisational behaviour at the London Business School and author of “The I of Leadership: Strategies for Seeing, Being and Doing” believes that meritocracy is not possible because individual accomplishments aren’t always the results of their own efforts. It begs the question - how do meritocracies promote whole teams? One person will inevitably profit more than others.

Is meritocracy a good or bad thing for business?

While meritocracy seems on the face of it to be an ideal promoting equality, it is actually fraught with difficulties. Clifton Mark writes in Fast Company, that fortuitous circumstances figure into every success story and as a result meritocracy doesn’t exist.

He goes on to say that “meritocracy offers flattery” and that “it licenses the rich and powerful to view themselves as productive geniuses.” While Mark writes about meritocracy as a social ideal, like it or not, a similar social hierarchy exists in most businesses.

Meritocracy relies on managers and leaders acting with true impartiality at all times. Research suggests that holding the ideal of meritocracy inadvertently does the opposite.

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