Getting lost in meritocracy - Does the best person always win? (#90)

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Jean Latting
May 23, 2023
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More people at the societal level are questioning if the best person always wins. We’ll explore monopoly as meritocracy and what is truly best.

Monopoly as a meritocracy

If you play Monopoly, you know there is a point at which there's no longer any real competition. The person with the most hotels has the resources to buy more and more property, effectively cutting out all the others. How you get to acquire enough hotels to own the game depends on luck as well as skill. Yet the winner normally is aglow with their victory, inwardly (if not outwardly) bragging on their accomplishment.1 The losers feel like, well, losers, as though they brought it all on themselves.

But is either reaction true?

In the workplace and in schools, winners are those who rise to the top or get the best grades. Those with less sterling accomplishments are admonished to try harder. Or their genes and parental upbringing are cited as causes for what are deemed to be personal failures.

At the societal level, people believe in meritocracy even though there is substantial evidence that the system is broken.2 The wealthy are getting wealthier, while those at the bottom are seemingly stuck there. In a recent interview with the inimitable Heather Cox Richardson, President Joe Biden explained it this way:

We're in a situation where the loss of income to people, middle class and working class Americans, is astonishing. But guess what, this past two years, 736 billionaires have made over a trillion additional dollars, and that is astonishing…They are not bad folks, but the way the system is lined up, there's no way for the average person to sort of get back in the game.

And…you have liberals, moderates, Republicans who are mildly conservative, all agreeing to one thing: this is not fair. It's not fair…The bottom line is people just know it's kind of rigged right now. And a lot of it happened not even intentionally. A lot of it happened because some really smart people were figuring out how to beat the system and it just got baked into the system. And we kind of looked around like what the devil is going on. And all of a sudden people wake up and say wait a minute.

My dad used to say, you know, everybody deserves just a shot. Give the average American a shot. They've never let the country down. I mean, they really haven't ever let the country down. And I think it's about getting ordinary people like the family I came from sort of back in the game.3

Success to the successful

In his classic book, The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge coined the term “success to the successful” to describe what happens when people succeed at something and are rewarded for it.4 Initially, it feels only fair to reward the winners. The winners may take their rewards and parlay them into the ability to become even more successful with even more rewards. So far, so good. As the person’s resources grow, they increasingly gain the ability to command even more resources. Left unrestrained, they eventually shut out the competition. At that point, people start questioning the fairness of what is happening, but because of the belief that winners should get rewarded, they have a hard time figuring out exactly what makes it now feel so unfair.

I grew to intensely dislike Monopoly as a child and stopped playing it. Once someone had acquired Park Place and Broadway, the outcome was a matter of time. They would purchase buildings, then hotels, and more often than not, slowly but surely, bankrupt the other players. I was fine with the game until the first hotel went up on either Broadway or Park Place. After that, the game was pointless. Why spend another half hour on something where the ending was virtually set? Even when I was the winner, something didn’t feel quite right. As long as the game stayed competitive, I was in. Once the hotels went up on Broadway or Park Place, the crowing of the victor and the crumbling of the defeated were painful to watch.

We can now see echoes of Monopoly when comparing the United States’ income inequality statistics from the 1950s to the present time. As government regulations fell away and efforts to level the playing field at the policy level diminished, beginning in the 1970s, the wealthy became steadily able to acquire even more wealth.5

Mean Income of Adults

It has now gotten to the point that people are debating whether the US has become a plutocracy or oligarchy. The core element of a democracy – that everyone has a fair shot, that the system is fair and not “rigged” (to use President Biden’s word), that people who get ahead do so based on merit and not legacy factors or unconscious bias – is now openly questioned.

Teaching family history

In a compelling article, Sheelah McLean reveals the narratives she grew up with about her grandparents’ hardships when they moved to Canada.6 As she explains:

These family stories are national texts that position white settlers as having earned our social and political status in society through intelligence and hard work alone, erasing the colonial policies that enforced differential access to resources, such as land. The story that my family built a life from nothing works to make economic inequality between white settlers and Indigenous people seem natural and normal.

In other words, her family benefitted from privileges they started with as White settlers and then solidified those gains through the process of the “success to the successful” archetype. Meanwhile, though, the youth were taught that they had earned their gains through meritocracy – their own hard work and ingenuity.

The access my family had in the early 1900s to land, citizenship, public education, mobility rights, bank loans, and government relief during famine secured their upward mobility and our middle-class status. The political economy of white settler status has been handed down from one generation to the next.

To illustrate this process, she presented this graphic:

teaching my family history

Teaching My Family History by Sheelah McLean

As she explains, certainly her ancestors had worked hard for their gains. Yet, were their gains entirely attributable to a meritocratic system?

Meritocracy in organizations – getting lost in objective criterias

The Flight Attendant, a popular television series and winner of several awards, featured this dialogue in Season 1, episode 2. Kim and Van, two FBI colleagues, had a mild altercation on how to handle someone under investigation. Kim thought Van went too far in his questioning. That led to this exchange:7

Kim: I am disappointed with your aggressive attitude during that interview, and generally.

Van : Well, someone seems to like my aggressive attitude and tactics because I’ve been here half as long as you and we have the same job.

Kim: Okay, real talk?

Van: Always.

Kim: I like you, Van. But you have to know that you fit the FBI’s “male, pale, and Yale” culture to a T. I mean, hell, you probably had a lacrosse scholarship. And that’s all fine for you. But I am a Black woman in a job that can still sometimes feel very much like a boys’ club. So even though I served in the Navy, even though I have outstanding tenure as a Federal agent, I could never get away with the kind of brash bullshit that you don’t even think twice about because you don’t have to think twice about it. So tell me one more time how your attitude is why we have the same job.

Van: I hear you.

Kim: Good.

So let’s recap. Van was alleging that he had risen to Kim’s rank in the organization in half the time it had taken her because of his individual merit. In his view, he was that good. Kim questioned his interpretation and whether his success thus far was attributable solely to a meritocratic promotion system or also to his “male, pale, and Yale” cultural background.

I was startled to see such a frank dialogue, even in a fictional television series. What is still being whispered about in many organizations is now such common knowledge it can be portrayed on television.

Kim was quite clear: gender and race biases inhibited her advancement in that organization. Fostering equity is full of paradoxes in organizations that genuinely value diversity and inclusion.

lady covered in gold paint

On the one hand, a belief in meritocracy requires that the “best” candidate get the job or the promotion. On the other hand, as Kim is noting, “best” is in the eye of the beholder. And the criteria for what constitutes “best” shift. As Thomas noted, Whites are more likely to become fast-tracked for their potential, while Black applicants are hired based on their proven successes.8 This is the insidious nature of ingroup bias, the tendency to favor members of your own group. It’s much easier to see the potential of someone whose background is consistent with your own than to imagine the future potential of someone whose habits and culture are different.

On the one hand, proven experience and high test scores may be regarded as “objective criteria” for hiring and promotions at the individual level. On the other hand, research has consistently shown that diverse teams outperform homogeneous ones. Diverse teams are more likely to re-examine facts and question biases, process information more carefully, and produce more innovative results.9

Hiring individuals based on ostensibly “objective” criteria stands in stark opposition to what may be good at the team or organization level – diverse groups of people bringing to bear their individual knowledge and experiences for the good of the organization as a whole. What is considered “best” at the individual level may not end up producing a “best” outcome at the group level.

The performing arts already make hiring decisions based on group rather than individual criteria. They look at a constellation of factors and what assets they want the ensemble to have, then choose individuals according to those criteria. In a play, for example, they do not choose the “best” actor. Rather, they choose the actor who has the best combination of demographic and personality characteristics to round out the ensemble.

Moving past success to the successful dynamics

At the end of one semester, a student approached me and reminded me of my coverage of success to the successful earlier in the semester. She revealed:

I have two direct reports. One of them reminds me of myself when I was that age – enthusiastic, a go-getter, takes on any task. The other, let’s call her Jackie, is more reserved and cautious, somehow withdrawn. She’s from a different ethnic group than myself – one that I don’t know much about.

The student took a deep breath and then added,

Remember how you taught us about success to the successful a few weeks ago? As you were explaining it, I became more and more uncomfortable. It felt as though you were talking directly to me. I had to ask myself honestly, was I giving more opportunities and favoring Mini-Me over Jackie. The answer honestly was yes. It was embarrassing to own up to.

So I made a switch. I started smiling at my least favorite employee more, offering her more opportunities and more coaching on how to succeed. She blossomed like a flower. I was startled at how hungry she was for my attention.

And now, I’m proud to say, they are both performing equally well. I have discovered they are good at different things, but we could have missed what the second person had to offer had I not recognized success to the successful dynamics in my own team.

Several things to note about this exchange. First, if the student had strictly adhered to her notion of what constituted merit on her team, the second person would not have stood a chance. Ingroup favoritism, reinforced by success to the successful dynamics, would have won out.

Here is what the dynamics in her team looked like:

Second, if she had not tested her assumptions about the second person’s lack of merit being inherent in the person - or a function of success to the successful dynamics - she would easily have been able to justify elevating the Mini-Me over the person with the less familiar background and work behavior.

If you are a leader, what does this mean for you?

  1. Gain familiarity with success to the successful dynamics. You can find them everywhere – in school systems, in classrooms, in politics. Those who are rewarded prosper and gain the resources and wherewithal to further advance. Those who are denied opportunities have to struggle all the harder. As the song says, “Them that’s got shall get. Them that’s not shall lose.”
  2. Reconsider what merit means to you personally. Have those whom you regard as more meritorious achieved their success because they have benefitted from success to the successful dynamics? Is their background similar to yours, so you view them through an ingroup bias lens? Did they achieve success in your setting because they were bred for it? And, would an honest second look alert you to someone whose background is different from your own and who might blossom if you would choose to give them “a fair shot” – as President Biden would say?
  3. Reconsider merit at the team or organizational level. Are you using individual-based notions of merit without considering the impact on the overall team? Could the insights and improved innovation and performance of a diverse team lead you to consider the diversity of experiences of individuals as part of what they bring to the table as “merit”? At least one algorithm exists to make the task just, transparent, and accountable.10

What if you are the “Kim” in your organization – finding yourself being measured against the equivalent of “male, pale, and Yale” standards in your organization? You have a huge obstacle ahead. You can keep plowing away at your job, or you can decide to have an honest and difficult conversation with your employer – or whoever has decision making authority.

Before doing so, gain outside help in how to talk about the assets you bring to the organization and how to broach the subject. I would strongly suggest you don’t just jump in. Once you have your head on straight and know what you want to say, here are two things to cover in that conversation:

  1. Your difference is an asset. Be able to explain how. This is delicate because you don’t want to be accused of playing the “race card” – or equivalent. Rather, you want to make sure the person knows you can round out their team with assets the decision maker doesn’t know about or hasn't expressed appreciation for.
  2. Ask for feedback. If you aren’t getting the opportunities or attention you believe you deserve, pull yourself together to find out what you personally are doing that is keeping that from happening.

If you decide to embark on this conversation, be prepared to get your feelings hurt. People of color don’t get feedback in the first person because the authority person does not want to deal with your upset. It’s okay to acknowledge disappointment at the bad news, while also expressing profound gratitude that the person is willing to speak candidly with you.

Keep in mind it’s a gift if someone is willing to invest time to tell you what you could do to improve. Your peers who are soaring successfully in the organization are probably receiving that feedback all along as part of the mentorship they are getting.

Above all, avoid retaliating by telling the person what they are doing to make it more difficult for you. That’s a conversation for another time and place. If you do a tit-for-tat routine, you negate the benefits of seeking feedback in the first place.

It's deceptively easy to believe people deserve what they get, and people who achieve successes should be rewarded for it. It's easy because there is truth in both beliefs. Individual effort is heralded while external advantages are seldom considered. The gloating winner of a Monopoly game ignores the luck of the dice or the cards they turned up. People boast their ancestors came with "nothing," rightfully acknowledging their hardships and hard-earned successes, while also ignoring the state-sponsored advantages that propelled these ancestors forward. Those rising to the top in an organization fail to consider how their fit with the cultural mold makes them more likely candidates for mentorship and opportunity.

Left to take its course, success to successful dynamics based on the illusion of pure individual merit can lead to startling inequality and systemic dysfunction. There is no magic wand to change this. What we can do is what my student did - recognize it in our sphere of influence, and then commit to make a change.

shelf of gold medal statues

Questions to ask yourself

  1. Can you identify some of your own advantages growing up? In your life today?
  2. What steps might you take to "give a fair shot" to those who did not have similar advantages?

Leading Consciously skills covered
in this blog

  • Bridge Differences
    • Sustain chronic unease toward exclusionary behaviors
    • Address underlying systemic biases
    • Learn to recognize dominant/nondominant dynamics
    • Check for stereotyping tendencies, unconscious biases, and blind spots in your behavior, especially as a dominant group member
    • Call others in rather than call them out

#SuccessToTheSuccessful   #Dominant/Nondominant  #CallIn/CallOut

Leading Consciously

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1 Frank, R. H. (2016). Success and luck: good fortune and the myth of meritocracy. Princeton, Princeton University Press.

2. García-Sánchez, E., I. Correia, et al. (2022). How Fair is Economic Inequality? Belief in a Just World and the Legitimation of Economic Disparities in 27 European Countries. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 48(3): 382-395.

3 Heather Cox Richardson's Interview with President Biden, 3/4/2022.

4. Senge, P. M. (1990). The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. New York, Doubleday/Currency.

5 The U.S. Income Distribution: Trends and Issues, Updated January 13, 2021. Congressional Research Service

6 McLean, S. (2018) We built a life from nothing: White settler colonialism and the myth of meritocracy. Academia. Volume fall/winter 2018.

7 Yokey, S. Rabbits (Season 1, Episode 2). The Flight Attendant, HBO Max.

8 Thomas, D.A. (2001) Race matters. Harvard Business Review.

9 Rock, D. and H. Grant (2016). Why diverse teams are smarter. Harvard Business Review 4(4): 2-5.

10 Huppenkothen, D., B. McFee, et al. (2020). "Entrofy your cohort: A transparent method for diverse cohort selection." Plos One 15(7).