Is meritocracy alone really the answer?

A few months ago I was having a chat with an acquaintance about going back to work after long stints of unemployment. In that conversation, I was told firmly that anyone who stops work for whatever reason (long maternity, being laid-off etc.) for longer than three years cannot possibly be expecting to pick up where […]

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Photo by LSE Library on Unsplash
Photo by LSE Library on Unsplash

A few months ago I was having a chat with an acquaintance about going back to work after long stints of unemployment. In that conversation, I was told firmly that anyone who stops work for whatever reason (long maternity, being laid-off etc.) for longer than three years cannot possibly be expecting to pick up where they left and apply for positions at the same level or above their previous one. According to this person, jobs evolve so rapidly, especially with today’s fast-moving technology, that anyone who has not been in the workplace would be far behind and unable to catch up. He went on to state that those out of work for over five years should “go back to school” as the world would have moved on, leaving them in the dark ages. The implication is that someone who has dedicated years to their career but who has had to take a voluntary or involuntary break is meritless or worthless. Only those who have been progressing through their career in a direct way without pause merit to advance.

There is truth in that. However, it is a linear and one-dimensional view that would render most organisations that apply meritocracy in this way a drab and monochromatic place. This type of merit belongs to a fixed mindset. And for decades it has prevailed. Fortunately, there are other progressive organisations that look at alternatives.

Setting aside essential and obvious points for being eligible for a particular position such as required qualifications, previous experience etc. let’s look deeper into how “meritocracy” has worked. Is an individual from a privileged background who goes from an elite school to an elite university to securing a position within a company through personal networks more merit worthy? Does someone who has never had to worry about fighting sexism, ageism, racism etc. merit more? Does someone who has never been laid-off or had to stop work for a single day even if they chose to have children, merit more than others who are less fortunate at the start or at any point in their career?

It would be more intelligent to look at the whole person to get the whole point. What are they bringing to the job and the rest of the team? They might not have been successful at every step of their career path but what have they learnt from their mistakes? They might have been out of work for a while but how did they develop during their time off work? Can the external viewpoint of this person be an advantage to the rest of the team and to the organisation as a whole? The key is to look at the synergy of what is created when individuals from diverse backgrounds are brought together, irrespective of their starting point and whether their career path has been a direct or a meandering one. This requires a shift to a growth mindset where we can look at meritocracy through a different lens: one where individuals are rewarded not because they achieve the same goal in the same way, but they reach different goals because of having to take a different pathway.

The fastest and most direct path to success is not always the best. Take for example the Olympic Games. The goal is not to complete say 400 metres in 45 seconds no matter what. It was – rightfully – decided that it would be unfair to put male, female and disabled athletes in the same athletic race because of the physical disadvantages between the groups. But even within the same gender and ability, the runners are staggered at the starting point in order to overcome the disadvantage of the outside runners. It would not occur to the rest of us to dispute that the gold medallist of each category fully and unequivocally merits their reward. We don’t celebrate the goal for the goal’s sake.

Passing laws and putting pressure on companies to hire ethnic minorities, women etc. – i.e. ticking the box – is hardly seen as a meritocracy by anyone (I speak as a non-white woman). Let’s face it, high-level positions and boards across the corporate world in the west are filled with middle-aged white men. Do they merit being there? Sure. But so do many others with different career paths to the linear, uninterrupted, privileged paths with a head-start that quite a few of these people have enjoyed.

So whilst my acquaintance – who happened to be a middle-aged white man from a very wealthy background – was adamant about the black and white nature of meritocracy with a sense of absolute entitlement, my view is that meritocracy alone cannot be the answer. There is no doubt that the most successful employees contribute to an organisation. But without the diversity of intellect and skillsets that others bring, that organisation would miss out on talent and wisdom and ultimately on opportunities to grow.

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