Even the man who coined the term ‘meritocracy’ thought it was a myth

diversityA common question we get when we first engage with clients is this die-hard belief they already operate in a meritocracy – albeit one that inconveniently has too few ethnic minorities and women at the top. Meritocracy is the idea that the best people will always rise to the top. And we understand why it’s vital to hold onto the idea of meritocracy. If you are at the top of an organisation, or even rising fast – it’s deeply psychologically uncomfortable to think you may have benefitted from anything else than your hard work, your brains, your ability – your merit. But organisations are built through ‘homosocial reproduction’ – people hiring and promoting others in their own image and to be questioned on that is deeply unsettling as you are questioning their right to be at the top at all.

For example, let’s say you were managing a team and it’s pointed out that a lot of the people in the team are just like you. You’d likely become defensive saying: ’But they’re great! I don’t care if people are purple, green or blue – I just want the best! I’m completely meritocratic!’ Meritocracy sounds ideal, but it’s a myth. The irony is that Michael Young, who coined the term in his 1950’s essay ‘The Rise of Meritocracy’ wrote it as a satire – he said ‘merit’ would always be defined by those in power as justification for staying in power. This is why so many traditionally male, Western and let’s face it, American traits are deemed as ‘leadership’ traits. Because of this, Young didn’t even believe a true ‘meritocracy’ was achievable.

A few weeks ago, I was presenting this idea about meritocracy on ‘why the smartest guys in the room lead on diversity and inclusion’ and we talked about the prevalence of this myth. It’s recognisable because everyone notices how someone saying to you ‘You know, you remind me of myself when I was younger’ always precedes advice or a helping hand. No one has ever held the alternative; ‘You know, you remind me of myself when I was younger…and I was a real bastard.’ Progress will come from advocating more people – who don’t remind you of a younger version of yourself.


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