Legal Law

Revitalizing meritocracy

Merit denotes goodness. It is a word synonymous with excellence, value and quality. We strive to live worthy lives, because doing so brings happiness to others and distinction to ourselves. When society prospers, it does so in large part because of the actions and contributions of deserving people.

There is no hotly contested debate about the virtue of merit. It is generally thought of as a desired attribute, particularly among employees. What boss wouldn’t want to have positive, trustworthy, valuable workers on his team? And yet another term derived from the word merit, meritocracy, appears to be under fire. Broadly speaking, meritocracy refers to an institutionalization of talent, ability, and skill that, when present and functioning, results in optimally managed organizations, whether in the commercial, government, or non-profit sector. . Compensation and power are oriented toward those who best demonstrate the desired traits of a meritocracy, such as intelligence, valuable credentials, and strong performance.

I always thought that meritocracy was an affirmative construct, so I was surprised to see that meritocracy has now become, at least counterintuitively to me, a controversial concept. To see why, I decided to examine what the dispute is about.

Examples of meritocratic management are historical and go back millennia. More recently, however, it turns out that the word meritocracy was originally coined and used derogatorily in 1958 by a British politician who criticized the British educational system for favoring too much intelligence and aptitude in students over other characteristics, thus led to elitism. It wasn’t until 1972 that Harvard sociologist Daniel Bell put a positive spin on the term by defending a combination of intelligence and energy as ideologically desirable. Today, there are many advocates and critics of meritocracy systems. Their divergent views seem to be based on differences in how fairness is determined in an organization or institution.

For example, Jim Whitehurst, who is now president of IBM, is optimistic about meritocracy. He only sees advantages in heavily rewarding the best people with the best ideas. Establishing a culture that encourages listening and sharing, and where every associate can contribute, makes it easier for management to discern which inspirations result in high-level wins over time. Allowing leaders to spot emerging talent and position this capability where it can create the most value, followed by generous compensation for quality influencers, is the hallmark of a highly functional meritocracy. Keeping associates engaged and identifying internal leadership makes the organization stronger.

A recent major critique of meritocracy was published in book form in 2019, The meritocracy trap by Yale law professor Daniel Markovits. He sees meritocracy as “a pretext, constructed to rationalize an unfair distribution of advantages.” According to Markovits, meritocracy has two profound drawbacks: it is often an unfair system that benefits those of a certain traditional type of leadership, say white men over women or minorities, and also that those seen as deserving actually find their lives consumed by competition and long years. Hours dedicated to the company. Hence the trap. In practice, not all talent really trickles down to the top and if one is lucky enough to be chosen, one’s life becomes less than satisfying.

So does meritocracy need reform? It depends on how “fair” is defined within an organization that purports to practice it. The style of meritocracy described by Whitehurst seems fair to me if and only if the culture is truly open to high-quality ideas no matter who proposes them and that the selection of those with the desired aptitudes is chosen solely on the basis of their skills and abilities and Not for outside considerations. And Markovits’ point about exploiting experience also needs to be monitored, primarily by those whose careers and lifestyles are most affected.

One thing both proponents and critics can agree on is that merit is a virtue that should be promoted and defended. We all benefit when it is.

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