Meritocracy is great, except when it isn't... then it's a @$%# train wreck.

The following is the original and the rewrite can be found by clicking here.

Up front I will tell you George is no one person but a "mashup" of people and situations I've experienced over the years.

The organization from the top down made a point of saying the culture was one of meritocracy; people were rewarded for ability and performance be it merit, incentives or the coveted promotion. If you exceeded your goals and objectives you were rewarded. Straight forward enough when you see it on paper.

And now for a bit of a tale:

The reasons for George's promotion can be summed up as "he was good at his old job", the organizational structure was trying to keep up with growth, George had experience with the organization, and his boss to be liked him (minimizing the risk of problems down the road).

A couple of years went by with George's performance being somewhat average; as some of his peers were promoted around him he began to notice and asked about being "promoted" to a senior manager (reflecting his hard work and tenure with the organization). The feedback was his performance and current competencies did not warrant a promotion; development plans to one degree or another were put in place.  

Over time, the bemoaning turned into overt complaining about the situation, he dismissed his 360 degree feedback outright, George's people began to talk behind his back, his peers began to question his behaviour and his lead and lag indicators continued to be average at best - And then... he was promoted. SCREEEEECH, BANG, BANG, CRUNCH, BOOM, BOOM.... KABOOOOOOOOOM!! What a @$%# train wreck

Granted, the sound effects may be suspect but that doesn't make the imagery any less accurate; let me offer some perspectives as to why, and let's start with George.

  • George is really happy, as you would expect; all of his questionable behaviour and average performance has been re-enforced as a good thing... I mean, he did get a promotion after all!
  • George's boss is relieved that she doesn't have to listen to George complain anymore but unfortunately she has just re-enforced all of George's behaviours (not only with George, but all of her other reports). And what about those average performance results? There was no reason to expect they would change and in fact they didn't.
  • George's peers started to question the credibility of reward for performance and what is needed for the "next promotional opportunity". Also, George's behaviour seemed to be effective, so why not include it in the "toolbox".
  • Employees emulate their boss, as she (or he) is their direct role model for success. George's thinking and behaviour will spread to his direct reports.
  • The company sees a malaise of mediocrity has settled into the organization with regard to performance and true leadership; it wonders why there is an ever shrinking pool of high performance people and can't understand why great people are leaving. All of which comes with a heavy cost.

As fun as it can be to play the "blame game", it is more constructive to drill down to the root causes(s) and this particular "train wreck" was the result of poor leadership (be it the noun or the verb... you choose).

  • Leadership had not established an "objective talent management process" used throughout the organization to promote people, and if they had, it was not robust enough to ensure that everyone understood what it is and adhere to it. In other words, "Talent management helter skelter"
  • Leadership could not, would not, or did not engage in appropriate management to "develop George up or out".

I suppose George's promotion could have been the result of using "promotions" as a retention strategy; or that some analysis was done that determined "moving on George" was at the very best a zero sum gain so to "promote him and move on" was the best course of action; or maybe the leader simply knew something that "everyone else did not", and the promotion was very much justified in her mind. 

Again, we find ourselves back to "poor leadership" as a root cause.

And by the way, the real sound of this @$%# train wreck was not the loud SCREEEEECH, BANG, BANG, CRUNCH, BOOM, BOOM.... KABOOOOOOOOOM, but the nearly inaudible swoooosh as Meritocracy collapses into a trite and hollow word.