Everyone wants to believe that they promote a culture where the most capable swim up to the surface and lead, while also believing that everyone is fundamentally bound together as a cohesive team. While we want to believe that too, we have little doubt that it is fundamentally not possible to have both.
Meritocracy was a catch phrase that was introduced by a British socialist in the 1950’s to define a concept that we all believed was a synonym progress, i.e. power, success and wealth should distributed according to talent and diligence. It was believed to be the founding pillar of societies— almost a definition for the American dream. And almost intuitively meritocracy appealed to organisational management—everyone was equal until you fundamentally proved yourself through capacity and capability to be better than the others.
Organisations in parallel also actively argued that for success to be achieved, people needed to work in teams—to collaborate and share and drive towards a common greater organisational goal or vision. This argument was also fundamentally sound and has proven time and again to be true—from business to the world of sport to even how bacteria survives.
Both these concepts are sound in their core logic, and the argument is can they hold together? Can an organisation concurrently encourage people to collaborate while constantly promoting for individual excellence and capabilities. Can people be expected to genuinely compete and collaborate at the same time? We have often heard the argument that this can happen if the purpose for the collaboration can be made bigger than what can be achieved by individual excellence, and maybe it is possible in some places. Great examples can be drawn from the world of sport—for instance, Zidane’s attempt at Real Madrid’s team philosophy of “todos juntos” (all together) while promoting individuals who have consistently performed.
But the larger mass of businesses are not sports teams—there is significantly less glamour and glory, the innings are much longer than 90 minutes or 20 overs and there aren’t just 11 people—and even in sports teams there are enough stories of how over a period of time people carp and compete negatively. People will respond finally to what their organisations tell them through tell tale signs of what is really recognised—are team incentives bigger than individual, are teams recognised more than individuals, in failure is it the team that fails or is there a search for an individual who did not pull his weight.
It is disingenuous to define organisational value statements that talk of team work while chanting norms of “perform or perish” and “up or out”, etc. And employees realise it very soon. As a matter of fact the one reason why corporate value statements end up being the most undervalued statements is because of this core fact—that actions and policies diverge from the homilies mentioned there.
While this can be debated ad nauseum, stories of failure and success over time would suggest that in general, teams do better than individuals over the long run. There are too many examples of organisations and societies today that have failed because of a wrong definition of meritocracy. Meritocracy needs to be founded on a stronger principle of defining what merit truly means. And one of the first things that one has to realise is that merit is both contextual and circumstantial—capability and performance cannot be taken for granted uniformly for an individual across all jobs, tasks, and situations. Diverse teams on the other hand have a higher chance of succeeding across all situations given that it is a blend of capabilities.
Isaac Newton said “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”. Our organisations need to realise that meritocracy, in the way we have defined it today, will perhaps help us in the shorter run but truly stronger organisations will be created when we drive teams before individuals—and our processes, systems and policies reflect that. And perhaps we don’t need value statements that are just empty words.
This article first appeared in Forbes India on 9 December 2017.
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