The Meritocracy - Teamwork Conundrum

While you are reading this piece I would encourage you to open another browser window and search for some corporate value statements – stop reading further if meritocracy and teamwork don’t show up for at least 90 percent of companies. 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. I want to believe that too, just that I 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 1950s to define a concept that we all believed was a synonym progress, i.e., power, success and wealth should be 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 organizational management – everyone was equal till you fundamentally proved yourself through capacity and capability to be better than the others.

Organizations, 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 organizational goal or vision. This argument was also fundamentally sound and has proven time and again to be true – from business to the world of sports to even how bacteria survives.

Both these concepts are sound in their core logic, and the argument is can they hold together? Can an organization 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? I 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 – in some ways I agree – maybe it is possible in some places. Great examples can be drawn from the world of sports – 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 glamor 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 organizations tell them through tell tale signs of what is really recognized – are team incentives bigger than individual, are teams recognized 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 organizational value statements that talk of teamwork while chanting norms of 'perform or perish' and 'up or out', etc. And employees realize 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 organizations 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 realize is that merit is both contextual and circumstantial – capability and performance cannot be taken for granted uniformly for an individual across all jobs and 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 organizations need to realize that meritocracy, in the way we have defined it today, will perhaps help us in the shorter run but truly stronger organizations 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.

Anandorup Ghose

Partner- Performance, Rewards & Organization

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