Defining Meritocracy (And How to Triumph in One)

Estimated reading time: 7 mins

A meritocracy is a system that rewards achievement. The more one achieves, the more one gains. It has gained popularity over the last few years because it is perceived to create motivation towards creating value.

But it isn’t, necessarily, totally fair or fairly applied. Because of this, the idea of meritocracy has had its fair share of criticism and many have questioned a system in which people are favored on intelligence and merit above anything else, including any past personal achievements, or their social position.

Nevertheless, many of us find ourselves working within a meritocracy, fair or not, so we have to know how to triumph within it.

For many organizations, their meritocracy is established so that their best ideas and people are identified, nurtured and rewarded. This idea is now celebrated in many organizations. If you ask me, I believe meritocracy is a great organizational structure for any business that aims to grow aggressively, by fostering and building engagement in their associates, while at the same time encouraging leadership from within.

What Is Meritocracy In A Workplace?

In meritocracy, each member of the team has the right to express their own opinions and they are encouraged to share these opinions as often and openly as they want, without worrying about the management. All these opinions are then listened to and decisions are made only on those that are deemed the best. How is this different from democracy? Well, there is no “decision by consensus” in meritocracy and not everyone has a vote. While everyone has the right to give his or her opinion, some people are listened to more than the others are.

So, who are the people listened more to? These are the people who have earned the right over some time. They have built a good reputation and history of giving good ideas beyond their day jobs, achieving great results for the company. These people do not have to be at a big position in the organization. Instead, they can be at any level, provided they have a record of accomplishment of contributing good ideas to the organization.

In meritocratic companies, people are able to achieve the path of leadership by not simply working smart and hard, but also by sharing unique ideas that can help bring a positive impact in their teams and the company as a whole. Entire paths can be paved simply because one person spoke up just when it really mattered, gaining the trust and respect from teammates. People listen to such individuals and as a result, such influential people are able to carve out a direction or a new initiative. For meritocracy to be successful, the higher management at any organization also needs to be able to listen to other’s opinions, even if that person is of a junior rank. All staff needs to be able to have the liberty to point out when s/he truly believes that something is wrong and the management needs to have the nerves to listen to such opinions and not react or get personal with that individual. Of course, such a change does not happen overnight. It will take time for anyone in this system to influence others and earn respect, promoting an environment where natural thought leaders get the right vehicles for communication and encouragement needed for them to thrive.

How is Meritocracy Built?

It is interesting that even currently, the concept of rewarding individuals entirely based on the influence they have is still very new. If you ask me, meritocracy is essential for modern business management. If your organization is trying to build a meritocratic culture, it will need to adopt the following three things:

  1. Empowerment of Leaders. In companies, associates include “thermometers” or “thermostats”. Thermometers are the people who reflect the temperature of the organization (followers), while thermostats are those people who set that temperature in the first place (leaders). It is the manager’s job to identify the thermostats and empower them. It is important to understand that not all thermostats are people managers. In fact, there will be many thermostats who are likely to be thought leaders and have gained reputation and influence over time, even if they do not directly manage others. These people do have some substantial influence over the direction others take. Irrespective of whether the leader is a people manager or someone who contributes individually, it will be important to give them all the tools needed for them to succeed and move the organization forward.
  2. Spread Passion Across Your Organization. You should place thermostats in places that can fully excite them. For example, if a developer has passion for contributing to then open source cloud projects; put him/her on a project that will let their passion to shine. When the time comes for them to be promoted, promote them towards a direction that will help them exercise their passions. They might want to take more projects or lead and mentor a team. Find out their motivations and then empower them to help them set their direction. Remember that the role that they will play in promoting energy and passion throughout your organization is imperative in inspiring others to follow them in their footsteps.
  3. Promote a Culture of Listening. A successful business understands that no single person has all the answers. It is important to be humble and open to other people’s opinion. A successful meritocracy preaches that great leadership is not always about having great ideas, but also about helping best ideas to collectively emerge. The managers and executives are responsible for setting the tone at the workplace and then encourage an environment that allows people to listen and share. Meritocracy cannot exist if ideas are not allowed to surface and then flow freely.

Even though, meritocracy can sometimes be a little bumpy with many opinions and voices, it is a great way to run an organization to help it stay cutting edge and competitive at all times.

How to Triumph in Meritocracy?

It is possible for informal leaders to emerge. In fact, these surprise leaders can be the integral part of a less structured and less hierarchical organization. Open communities adopt meritocracy because this system allows for a more decentralized decision-making and leadership. This system promotes the rise of an elite group of people who progress merely on their talent and ability and not the wealth or class privilege. Here are some of the ways in which you can triumph in a meritocratic organization:

  • Be a Good Listener. You should take out time to see if you are really listening to other people. There are three levels of listening and all humans shift from one level to the next. The first level is when you listen to others while at the same time formulating a response in your head. The second level is when you find yourself engrossed in what the other is saying and you are attuned to the other person’s emotional state. The third is what you can call an atmospheric listening – when you start hearing the world around you. You should try to stay at level two as much as possible. It is important that instead of formulating a response, you listen to what the other person has to say with complete attention.
  • Demonstrate Yourself Openly. Working in a group can make it difficult for you to show your individuality. Sometimes people also “turn off” their personalities just to be able to fit in. Even though it might be important to modify your personality in certain situations, you should try not to go against your own nature. For example, if you are an outspoken person, you should stay outspoken; just be more collaborative and empathetic in your language. If you have a strong opinion, you should state it; just be considerate of your choice of words and how others will react to them. If you are an introvert or are naturally quiet, you should use one-to-one communications to make other people better understand you.
  • Be Mindful Of How You Communicate. Not everyone communicate with respect and kindness and many people miss reflecting on their behaviors. Some people do not realize when the way they are communicating is abrasive. It is a difficult thing to maintain your moxie and stand up for the things that you believe to be true. Therefore, if you feel attacked, you should address the situation. While it is not a good idea to hide your feelings, it is important to talk to people in private at times.
  • Promote Diversity. To be able to get merit in an organization, you will need to voice diverse opinions as well as perspectives from diverse people. Reaching out intentionally to people who can help fill gaps in your knowledge base will gain you respect. You will know where your blind spots exist and you will be empowering people around you. Remember that true leadership is all about empowering the people around you, so make yourself an effective learner.

Have suggestions of your own? Share with us in the comment section. Do also check our other blog posts on similar topics like Why Is Your Office Culture So Bad? It Could Be Your Hiring Practices and 10 Common Leadership and Management Mistakes.

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