Meritocracy – Challenging the Myth

by LP Green, II

It’s amazing how many leaders tell me that their organization is a true meritocracy. Yet many women and traditionally under-represented groups who work for those same companies also tell me they must work harder and prove themselves over and over to secure the developmental opportunities that foster their career growth.

To build a true meritocracy, a system whereby the talented are chosen and moved ahead on the basis of their achievement, we first need to recognize that there are many factors beyond innate ability that contribute to any individual’s development. These include assignments that build capability, interpersonal relationships that support risk-taking, and management practices that emphasize the optimal performance of a diverse workforce at all levels. A meritocracy is only possible with a system of inclusion.

Inclusion consists of three key elements – let’s examine each in turn:

Believe that most people are capable of high levels of performance

In order to ensure that we tap the potential of the greatest number of employees, leaders need to start with the premise that every single employee has the potential to advance and add value to the business.  Managers must let go of any belief that top talent is only represented by a few and stop focusing all their time and investment on select people. Otherwise, you foster a culture of a limited number of ‘go to’ employees, who are the only ones to be given opportunities to advance their careers.

Position everyone for growth and development

Once managers start to work from the assumption that most people are capable of high levels of performance – regardless of position, ethnicity or gender, tenure or previous experience – they can then cultivate that potential by stretching employees to achieve clearly defined outcomes. All employees need to understand how their responsibilities are connected to achieving organizational objectives. It’s a two-way street: they need to own their development but at the same time they must be given those stretch assignments that will provide them with those critical experiences to contribute. When people are supported in this way, their confidence levels soar, their determination and commitment emerges, yielding growth and increased contributions.

Coach performance based on clearly-defined standards

Once individuals clearly understand the level of performance that is required, the next step is to provide feedback – have they met the required standard or is there room for improvement? And this is the operative word. Rather than seeing feedback as a negative, this information is treated through a lens of improvement. This directly supports an ability to develop a targeted strategy for growth based on current strengths and weaknesses.

Organizations must eliminate the obstacles that hinder development and create a culture that encourages continuous improvement. Let’s not forget that managers too must also be supported in how to provide developmental support for their employees. Boosting a manager’s capability to do this is a skill that can be learned.

I cannot emphasize enough how important it is for organizations to create an inclusive environment where everyone (management and non-management) subscribes to a way of thinking that supports the development of all rather than the development of a few leaders. Management practices must reinforce the belief that most people have the capacity to grow and develop.

By being inclusive, organizations will create a clearer baseline of meritocracy and expand their slate of “go to” employees. These individuals will exponentially support top line and bottom line growth, which will lead to a clear competitive advantage.

Let me put it another way. Can you really afford to have a majority of your workforce disconnected, underdeveloped and under-utilized?


By Michael Hyter



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