Dismantling Toxic Meritocracy

It is time to dismantle the meritocracy.

At least when it is served up as an exemplar of a clear, transparent, and flawless system for weighing and defining value and worth. Because true meritocracy is a myth.

Sure, it feels good to say. We should reward merit — good and worthy efforts deserve praise or reward. As a system, it provides an incentive and motivation for people to do good work. It also gives us a system of evaluation that we can point to that feels clear and transparent, where we can establish some baseline for comparing what feels like “good work” across the board versus what feels like “bad work”.

But once we begin to define what is meritable, the system begins to break down.

Because, even if we agree on the characteristics deserving of merit — intelligence, wit, strength, adaptability — the criteria that we use to define them is a spectrum of gray both nuanced and complex. And then, even if we could somehow zero in on a narrow definition of criteria, the question that should arise next is, why does that automatically invalidate other criteria on the scale? Why is that definition of intelligence better than this definition?

Here’s the truth: merit is not without bias and meritocracies are not inherently fair, contrary to popular (or wishful) belief. A meritocratic approach only guarantees that someone will choose criteria that define what merit is. In a vacuum, and absent of bias, that criteria will be agreed on by 100% of people and everyone in the world will coalesce around one idea or one belief of how you define that criteria. Take the model out of a vacuum, and the purity of it becomes less clear.

To provide a tangential but related example, I want to talk about the Netflix show, “Love is Blind.” I may or may not have binged it all in one day and then eagerly waited on the Weddings episode like a package from Amazon Prime that took 3 days to get here instead of the guaranteed two.

In that show, we see the show hosts repeatedly ask the participants “is love truly blind?” When the participants all meet, with nothing to distract them — physical attributes, cell phones, internet — people make deep and true connections in a matter of days, all in the name of love. However, when you introduce the world — external influences, societal norms, existing communities — the purity of those connections created in an isolated and controlled space are suddenly challenged and questioned. Meritocracy as a pure and perfect concept only works with conditions that control for all the influences that will bias and distort our interactions.

Bias could be something as innocent as our respect or admiration for brands we trust or believe in. How many of us immediately define intelligence as academic rigor, and then measure rigor by the reputation of a university or institution? If a role at a company had two applicants and one went to Harvard while another went to a community college, how many of us would make the series of connections that allow us to believe the candidate from Harvard challenged themselves more academically, has a track record demonstrating intelligence, and as such, is the more meritable candidate?

The pathway between these connections feels good because it is easy logic to follow, and may even have served as a great predictor of merit in past decisions. However, it lulls us into the habit of applying assumptions as universal law. For instance, assuming that Harvard is the definition of intelligence instead of just one way to indicate academic rigor or intelligence. By extension, that will impact how candidates not from Harvard are seen within this criterium before they even have a chance to convey their story. Stories like prioritizing proximity to family, or making the most of limited resources such as SAT prep, college counseling, and summer enrichment programs.

This is a definitional shortcut, and shortcuts increase the chance that our merit-based approach becomes biased towards valuing a very narrow profile.

In the movie Moneyball, we saw this reliance on bias work against baseball clubs making decisions on talent. All the scouts agreed that the best ballplayers had an uncanny amount of talent, athleticism, and knowledge of the game. However, the method that most general managers and coaches used to measure these criteria was trusting the eye and “gut” of talent scouts. The Oakland A’s bucked this trend, making decisions based entirely on stats and data analysis, and their success at building a strong team with fewer resources shifted the paradigm of the profession.

Merit — and the definition of all the criteria we choose to measure — can ultimately become subject to our personal experience. We read that a university is the best school, so we use that as a filter to measure intelligence. We saw another person hit the ball like that, so we think this new recruit has what it takes. And the impact of personal experience extends to the workplace. We may find one person a more qualified writer because they cited or referenced content we are familiar with or would agree with, or they showed a more expansive vocabulary. We may trust someone’s approach to a problem because they have a background that we relate to or is more common in our circles.

True meritocracy can only exist if the influence of bias is eradicated from the system. Since cognitive bias is rooted in our evolution as human beings, that may be a tall order. However, it doesn’t mean that a meritocratic approach is not worth striving for. We just need to accept that it does not function like a perfect, well-oiled, efficient machine. Even well-built machines need maintenance and lubrication to ensure they do not grind to a rusty, and disappointing halt.

For the meritocratic machine, that lubricant is objectivity. Focusing on merit may help me identify what I am looking for in a potential employee, communicate it clearly, and layout the criteria we use for evaluation, but how do I encourage every evaluator to only assess each candidate through those criteria?

I do that by treating objectivity as its own piece of this system. I implement blind reviews of resumes. I look at my anonymization process for candidate data, ensuring that personal details —names, addresses, other demographic indicators—are shared sparingly during the evaluations process or shared on a need to know basis. I work to pull together hiring committees and interview panels broadly representative of multiple demographic and ideological backgrounds.

This intervention doesn’t hurt the machine’s efficiency; it improves it. Meritocracy won’t be weakened by intentional and active measures to check for bias and infuse objectivity; the system will be bolstered by these interventions. These objective measures will increase the likelihood that any choices made will actually be based on merit and not bias masquerading as thoughtful deliberation.

And logically, a meritable team should be a diverse team. Because the world is full of diverse and heterogeneous communities, and if we simply randomly sampled the population to fill the ranks of our various organizations or companies, we would likely have a much better track record on producing diverse teams than we do today. Random sampling to fill jobs is unrealistic and an oversimplification of what companies need to be successful, for sure, but why isn’t striving for that level objectivity in how we find talent at least not a principle in a meritocratic system? Why are low percentages of traditionally underrepresented communities the norm and percentages more consistent the total representation of that group in society or the world seen as unexpected or unrealistic.

Maybe part of the problem is the belief that diversity and meritocracy exist at opposite ends of a spectrum. That pivoting towards one means sacrificing the other in a zero-sum game. If you care about diversity, then you have to lower the bar, and if you focus on meritocracy, you have to accept that the pipeline for underrepresented talent won’t yield enough quality. In the world today, we are seeing a rise in nationalist, isolationist rhetoric and politics across the U.S. and Europe — populations looking to treat diversity as a source of weakness rather than of strength. allowing immigrants into a country’s borders suddenly becomes a liability, and having strong relationships with other countries is seen as unnecessary. In these cases, “merit” becomes synonymous with intolerance, as the system begins to define criteria that devalue difference and uniqueness, and encourages assimilation or homogeneity,

But homogeneity isn’t an asset. Diversity roots out groupthink or limited thinking from problem-solving processes, which are both bad for business. Diversity helps products and product teams innovate because it makes potential gaps or blind spots more obvious or helps teams identify trends that are happening across a diverse customer base. Homogeneity may help you move fast, comfortable, but it doesn’t help you build a better, more innovative solution.

And homogeneity certainly isn’t a meritocracy. But we accept this as our truth when we shun the necessity of checking the influence of our own bias on that system or its criteria. Meritocracies and diversity don’t have to be mutually exclusive. So let’s dismantle the toxic meritocracy, and build a better one: one based on clear criteria, a measurable baseline, and real objectivity.

This piece originally appeared on Corey Ponder, and was published here with permission.

Corey Ponder

Corey Ponder

Tech policy professional by day, wannabe superhero by night. Passionate about building communities, spaces, and platforms focused on inclusion and empathy.

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