Diversity Insight: Is Meritocracy Undermining Your Employees and Sabotaging Your Goals? 

colorful wooden meoples race
By Amri B. Johnson

5 minutes

When leaders empower everyone to thrive, all employees can deliver their best work.     

On the surface, meritocracies seem beneficial to organizations. After all, they advance the people with the best performance, right?

In reality, meritocracies hurt your most vulnerable employees. Everyone has merit; everyone deserves dignity. Rather than run your organization based on merit, try anchoring on people—on the boundless potential of one another. This will unleash the potential of all your employees—not just a select few.

Systems based on meritocracy won’t help everyone make the meaningful contributions of which they are capable. But when leaders empower everyone to thrive—not just “top performers”—all employees can deliver their best work.     

7 Steps You Can Take to Mitigate Meritocracy Damage

So, what should organizations do to get the outcomes they desire? Here are some tips to help you deconstruct the myth of meritocracy and make your organization fairer and more inclusive to all.

  1. Start by asking important questions about meritocratic-oriented systems. When you’re separating the ideal (meritocracy) from the reality of how it’s been practiced, it’s important to reconsider the notion of how it has served the people in your organization. Ask yourself: Has the ideal of meritocracy helped people thrive in our organization? If yes, who has it helped (more or less)? Where does it serve or hinder our mission? Does our current perception of it help us create a better culture? If yes, what is the evidence of this?
  2. Look for meritocratic ideals everywhere (and root them out). You might discover these ideals masking themselves in people’s preferences, organizational traditions or what is expedient. In these cases, question whether decisions made from systems designed for meritocracy are clear, consistent and caring. If they are not, inequity is likely in process or being reinforced in the organizational mind. 
  3. Believe in the potential of your employees—all of them. As diversity, equity and inclusion pioneer Michael Hyter observed, nearly all employees are capable of high-level performance. Just because your employees haven’t reached the pinnacle yet does not mean that they won’t or can’t. Likewise, if you see an instance that your reports or peers drop in performance, don’t conclude that they have reached some imaginary ceiling that cannot be broken through. Consider in all cases that if they can’t make a breakthrough in performance by themselves, that they can do so with the right help from their management and peers. Likewise, be sure not to overload the “cream of the crop” with the lion’s share of the work. Spread responsibility around, allowing all employees to share the load and have ownership over important projects. Of course, you can help by figuring out everyone’s skills and putting people to work in areas where they shine. You will end up with far less burnout from your most productive workers while others have a chance to rise to the occasion and improve their performance. 
  4. Clearly define performance standards for employees. Coach them to move toward these standards. Coaching should come from superiors, managers and peers. Great teams get better together. Developing organizational capacity for people to be helpful coaches with one another will provide hefty returns.”
  5. Eliminate performance improvement process. When an employee is ranked as a low performer, they are often subjected to a PIP, which lays out everything that employee must do in alignment with the manager’s desires. PIPs are usually not about performance improvement, but rather a justification to move a person out while appearing impartial. Instead of this punitive process, take a deliberate and formal approach, coaching the employee to develop and experience real growth. Check in formally and informally often. In your informal conversations, identify from whom the employee could learn and how they could refine specific skills. Find out how the employee is feeling and help them identify what they might do differently. For formal conversations, summarize their work, explore their engagement on projects and discuss next steps.  
  6. Pay attention to who gets promoted most often. If you are a person of influence and power in your organization, be aware of pushing your preferences. Do you tend to insist on candidates with similar backgrounds and pedigrees? Notice how, by doing this, you are undermining the very equity you are trying to create. What can you do differently? 
  7. Build an inclusion system. Meritocracies are exclusive by nature—they promote people who very often already have a leg up on everyone else because of who they are (and who they know). But an inclusion system is a framework that outlines the conditions critical to inclusion’s becoming normative is there for the sole purpose of helping all stakeholders thrive and contribute their best to the culture and organizational mission. It will empower everyone to perform at their best and have an opportunity to engage like never before. 

At best, meritocracy is incomplete, and, at worst, it is dehumanizing. It benefits only some—those at the top. A human-centric approach is the clear path to transformation. When you support and believe in the potential of all employees, the gains become far more equitable, and people are finally able to show up as their best selves and give you their best work.

Amri B. Johnson is the author of Reconstructing Inclusion: Making DEI Accessible, Actionable, and Sustainable. For more than 20 years, he has been instrumental in helping organizations and their people create extraordinary business outcomes. He is a social capitalist, epidemiologist, entrepreneur and inclusion strategist. His dialogic approach to engaging all people as leaders and change agents has fostered the opening of minds and deepening of skill sets with organizational leaders and citizens, enabling them to thrive and optimally contribute to one another and their respective organizations. As CEO/founder of Inclusion Wins, Johnson and a virtual collective of partners converge organizational purpose to create global impact with a lens of inclusion.

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