It’s Leaders Who Create Merit-Whores

Estimated reading time: 5 mins

A couple of weeks back I wrote about the most disliked behaviors in IT departments, and one that 80% of IT leaders felt strongly about was the rise of the Merit-Whore. A Merit-Whore is someone who persistently and unfairly takes credit for the work of a team or a subordinate. Why does this happen?

In most business organizations now, merit is the currency of success. A ‘meritocracy‘ is an organizational reward model where the high performers are rewarded with ‘credit’, i.e. bonuses, promotion, recognition or something similar, and poor performers are punished or moved on – what’s more poor performers tend to be widely known for that fact and social pressure grows to move them on. It is a kind of corporate immune system. Being known as a poor performer is painful.

So a phenomenon arises from this model – the Merit-Whore. It’s a harsh term I guess. I’ve known a few in my time, and in my experience the Merit-Whore is a complex character, but it isn’t so easy to say they are ‘bad’ people or ‘bad’ workers.

The Merit-Whores I’ve experienced tend to have low-self esteem, self-confidence and they shirk personal responsibility because they feel inadequate to meet the expectations bestowed upon them. It is a behavior rooted in fear, and the fear provokes other behaviors. What Merit-Whores do is try to take any kind of credit from a situation to boost their self-esteem. However, the credit given to Merit-Whores has no long-lasting effect, as their sub-conscious knows they don’t deserve it and the credit was gained without integrity, which further damages their confidence and self-esteem.

Merit-Whores are particularly common in IT, because the value created by IT workers isn’t always instant and obvious because of the esoteric nature of much of the work. IT workers can save $millions or save their organization from serious issues through effective risk management, but this contribution can go unnoticed as it is difficult to quantify and qualify. This is particularly acute in structures where a manager is ‘distant’ to their subordinates, in terms of technical understanding and context.

These situations don’t help the poor performer. Moreover they reduce the morale for their colleagues. A group of workers continually assess each other’s behavior and performance, even if they don’t know they’re doing it. But when a poor performer is rewarded equally or more than their colleagues who contributed then it has a deep psychological effect – a display of unfairness by a leader damages the credibility and trust in the leader and, overall, it reduced productivity of the whole team. Often, passive aggression and loafing ensues in the other workers. What we end up with is a whole team of poor performers!

Leaders are really to blame for this phenomenon. Meritocracy can create a harsh environment for workers who might be going through a period of poor performance, and it is leaders who create this environment.

Leaders can often be lazy in finding out who was involved in a particular contribution and reward someone just because they said they contributed. Great leaders I have observed drill down into the situation to find out who did what, and why. A consistent approach to giving credit is needed so that leaders can fairly distribute it. This approach finds out who really added the value, and for those just doing their job, it should result in neutrality (no punishment).

Leaders can address such situations like this:

  • Don’t reward for doing the day job – it’s much better to incentivize for value-added contribution
  • Leaders mustn’t expose poor performers as such, to avoid the triggering of the corporate immune system
  • Leaders must ask questions about how the contributions were created, as well as listening to what the contribution is, before awarding credit
  • Credit should be given to teams as much as possible rather than individuals
  • Poor performers should be nurtured differently. Outright reward for improvement in behavior just compounds the issue. Poor performers could be privately coached or mentored
  • Be direct and honest about your observations – perhaps the most powerful intervention. Leaders must be upfront about how the poor performer is perceived and share your observations. In 99% of the time, the poor performer will be aware of their own performance, but the important aspect of this is to demonstrate your awareness, and also your support

Are You a Merit-Whore?

Do you recognize some of the indicators of a Merit-Whore in yourself? Here are some tips to help you stop this behavior:

  • Give credit to other people and take none of your own (if you haven’t contributed) – this sounds counter-intuitive, but this has the strange effect of giving you a personal boost of well-being and managers also like to hear about the contributions of others through their peers. Demonstrating your sensitivity to contribution of others is a trait managers like
  • Take credit, but share it – if you do deserve credit, then share it with your co-workers. This will portray you as a team-player. Once your co-workers know you’ve done this then it is much more likely to be reciprocated
  • Create opportunities for others to earn credit– instead of feathering your own nest, you could try creating opportunities for your co-workers to be merited with achievement. Sometimes, this is just as simple as connecting people up – e.g. suggesting that your co-worker should speak to a financial accountant because you know they need some help in a system that your co-worker has had previous experience with. If you do this, it will definitely be reciprocated
  • Take positive action– start with assessing your awareness of your behavior and identify how you react in situations where you become hungry for confirmation and merit. Now identify a short list of alternative responses you could choose and try them out

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2 thoughts on “It’s Leaders Who Create Merit-Whores”

  1. Simon,

    I like where you’re going with this.

    You said you know of a couple of people in the past who fit this. I think your posts might be more compelling if you weave in an actual experience or two. Of course, if it is unflattering, you should anonymize.

    Also, I would add a section on how to deal with a merit-whore on the team, as a peer. Or even if the merit-whore is your boss!

  2. @Chris – thanks for the feedback Chris. Sounds like I should follow this article up and incorporate your thoughts into it.

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