July 27, 2020
In 1958, Michael Young coined the term “meritocracy” in his book, The Rise of the Meritocracy. Young used the term satirically to depict a United Kingdom ruled by a system that favored intelligence and merit above all else, including past personal achievements.
However, the concept of meritocracy has taken on a different meaning since Young’s book. It now refers to organizations where the best people and ideas win. It is no longer an idea that is mocked or ridiculed, but rather celebrated. In fact, I would argue that a company looking to build and foster engagement among their associates as well as encourage leadership should consider adopting a meritocratic approach.
What is a meritocracy in the workplace? In a meritocracy, 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 those that are deemed the best. It’s important to understand that a meritocracy is not a democracy. There is no “decision by consensus”; not everyone has a vote. This is the key distinction of the meritocracy. While everyone does have a voice, some are listened to more than others.
Herein lies the crux of a meritocracy: Who decides who is listened to? Who decides which ideas are the best? My view is that 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.
In many companies that employ a meritocracy, people forge their own path to leadership, not simply by working hard and smart, but also by expressing unique ideas that have the ability to positively impact their team and their company. Entire paths have been paved because a single person spoke up when it mattered, had gained enough trust and respect from teammates so people truly listened, and, as a result, was able to influence direction of an initiative (or start a new one).
For example, I think back to an associate who, as we were developing our HR solutions program, spoke up in a meeting when he thought myself, his boss’s boss, his boss and others, were making a wrong decision. While we didn’t follow his guidance that day, eventually we did because we valued his opinion, and frankly, because he was right.
Of course, this doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time and a consistent track record to begin to earn respect and influence in a meritocracy. As you can imagine, given the right vehicles for communication and encouragement, the natural thought leaders emerge.
How to Build a Meritocracy
It is interesting to me that in business, the concept of rewarding individuals based on their influence is still relatively new. I believe it is a strategy managers should consider adopting if they want to succeed at the next level.
Here are three things I would suggest if you want to build a meritocracy in your organization:
- Empower your leaders. At one of my former companies, we thought of associates as either “leaders” or “followers.” Followers were the people who reflected the temperature of an organization, while leaders were those who set that temperature. Managers should figure out who their leaders are, and empower them. However, it is important to recognize that not all leaders are people managers. Many will likely be thought leaders who have gained influence over time from their contributions and results, and while they don’t manage others, they do have influence over the direction of others. Regardless of whether your leader is a people manager or an individual contributor, it is important to give them the tools they need to succeed and drive the organization forward.
- Foster passion across the organization. Place leaders in positions that speak to what they are truly excited about. If a developer is passionate about contributing to open source cloud projects, put them on a project that will enable that passion to shine. When it comes time to reward them, do not simply promote them with a new title, but rather direct them towards a path that will enable them to follow their passion. Perhaps they want to take on additional projects, or mentor and lead a team. Find out what motivates them and then empower them to set their own direction. Do not, however, forget about your followers. The role they play promoting energy and passion throughout the organization is just as important, and they need to be in areas where they can excel too.
- Encourage a culture of listening. Whether we are talking about the CEO, or mid-level manager, it is important to recognize that nobody has all of the answers. In a meritocracy, great leadership is not about having great ideas, it is about ensuring the best ideas emerge. It is up to the executives and managers to set the tone of the workplace and encourage an environment that promotes listening and sharing. It’s impossible to have a meritocracy if ideas are not allowed to surface and flow freely.
While a meritocracy can be a bit of a bumpy road (lots of voices = lots of opinions = lots of data to dissect), I have found that it truly does help us stay on the cutting edge and bring to light the best ideas. It also helps us keep associates engaged and fosters genuine leadership. What more could you ask for?