Merit denotes goodness. It is a word synonymous with excellence, value, and quality. We strive to reside in meritorious lives, because to do this brings happiness to others and distinction to ourselves. When society thrives it will so largely as a result of actions and contributions of individuals displaying merit.
There isn’t a hotly contested debate in regards to the virtue of merit. It is generally viewed as a desired attribute, particularly among employees. What boss wouldn’t wish to have positive, reliable, and worthwhile workers on the team? And yet, another term based on the word merit, meritocracy, is very much under fire. Broadly speaking, meritocracy identifies an institutionalizing of talent, ability, and skill that when present and operational ends up with optimally run organizations, whether in operation, government, or even the nonprofit sector. Compensation and power are steered toward those who best demonstrate the required traits of your meritocracy like intelligence, valued credentials, and solid performance.
I always thought meritocracy was an affirmative construct, so I have already been surprised to find out that meritocracy has now become, counter-intuitively in my opinion at least, a controversial concept. To see why, I decided to look at what the dispute is focused on.
Examples of meritocratic administration are historic reaching back millennia. More recently though, it turns out the saying meritocracy was originally coined and used derogatorily in 1958 with a British politician who had previously been criticizing the British education system as overly favoring student intelligence and aptitude above other characteristics, resulting in elitism. It wasn’t until 1972 when Harvard sociologist Daniel Bell put a confident spin for the term by championing a mixture of intelligence and as ideologically desirable. Today, there are several proponents and critics of meritocratic systems. Their divergent views appear to rest on differences of how one determines what exactly is fair in a organization or institution.
For example, Jim Whitehurst, who’s now president of IBM, is bullish on meritocracy. He sees only advantage in strongly rewarding the most beneficial people with the top ideas. Establishing a culture that encourages listening and sharing and where every associate can contribute makes it easier for management to discern which inspirations lead to high end gains as time passes. By enabling leaders to distinguish emerging talent and position this ability where they’re able to create the greatest value, as well as generous compensation to the quality influencers, would be the hallmark of the highly functioning meritocracy. Keeping associates engaged and identifying in-house leadership creates a stronger organization.
A recent significant criticism of meritocracy was published in 2019 in the form of an book, The Meritocracy Trap by Yale law professor Daniel Markovits. He sees meritocracy as “a pretense, constructed to rationalize an unjust distribution of advantage.” According to Markovits, meritocracy has two profound liabilities-it can often be an unfair system that benefits those of the certain traditional kind of leadership, say white males over women or minorities and also that those considered meritorious find their lives consumed by competition and extended hours devoted to the business. Hence, the trap. In practice, its not all talent really percolates to the peak and if you are lucky enough to be chosen one’s life decreases than satisfying.
So, does meritocracy need reform? It depends how “fair” is determined within an organization that provides practice it. The style of meritocracy explained Whitehurst sounds fair if you ask me, if simply if, the culture is open to premium quality ideas it doesn’t matter who puts them forth knowning that selection of those that have desired aptitudes are chosen with regards to skills and skills alone rather than for extraneous considerations. And Markovits’ point about exploitation of know-how is also needing monitoring, primarily by those whose careers and lifestyles are most affected.