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Ask Lisa & Tinna: How to Spark a Discussion on Meritocracy?

5 minute read

This question comes from Christie who is a global HR leader in a multinational. We’ve worked with her, DEI leaders, HR Business Partners, and other colleagues by sharing about Inclusion Nudges and how they can apply this approach in their work across the organisation, such as in talent discussions, hiring, development, and more.


Dear Lisa & Tinna,

I am following up on one of our conversations from this Fall when you referenced a body of work / research on the myth of meritocracy. I would like to dig more deeply into this, and I was hoping that you might suggest a particular author / researcher whose work you like and respect as a starting place. Would you mind directing me to the specific Inclusion Nudges that are aimed at this? My colleagues and I would love to address this topic in an HR leadership community development meeting.

Kind regards,

Christie


Great question, Christie! This is an important area for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) change work.

It can be very seductive for us to hold views of ourselves as being fair and merit-based, and to also hold views of our organisations being a meritocracy. But research (such as Castilla & Benard’s study The Paradox of Meritocracy in Organisations) shows this is often a false self-belief and one that limits making progress on equity for all.

One of the pitfalls is that the more we perceive equity is the norm, then the less likely we are to spot inequities. There can even become an organisational norm where the culture is untouchable on this topic—the stronger the belief, especially when held by high status and powerful people, then the less examination happens. We, Tinna and Lisa, have both worked in organisations that proclaimed “We are a meritocracy” as one of the corporate values. Unfortunately, rather than triggering analysis, reporting, and actions to ensure meritocracy was achieved, it became a de facto belief that this already existed and anyone who called it out otherwise was punished. This meritocracy self-perception among leaders and employees made it even harder to achieve.

In the situations that we were in, the questioning of “Are we a meritocracy?” was taboo. And it became clear that the culture was off limits for any DEI change work to ensure greater equity (read more about this in this blog article). This completely shut down any work to ensure there was meritocracy, with implications of wide gaps between the declaration of meritocracy and the actual experiences of the people in the organisation. The credibility of the leaders and the organisational reputation were weakened, and staff were disengaged and leaving.

Another dynamic perpetuating inequalities within perceived merit-based cultures is moral licensing. This is when a good act or a positive belief, triggers behaviours that are actually not pro-social and in alignment with our intentions. For example, when we feel good after attending a DEI training, we are less attentive to where bias may be occurring and cases of exclusion and harassment increase. This has strong implications on the success of diversity programs which are often heavily reliant upon training as a solution (see Dobbin and Kalev’s Why Diversity Programs Fail and Why Sexual Harassment Programs Backfire). Similarly, when an organisation is focused on doing good in the world, there can be less focus on doing good within their own workplace (recall the many situations of humanitarian organisations with cases of harassment).

So, how can we, as change makers, bring up an honest discussion about meritocracy when there are such powerful forces discouraging this to happen? In our work, we’ve been at this point many times and sparking the discussion by showing (not telling) about inequalities within the culture through its systems and the decisions and behaviours is a powerful way to start.

Here are some motivational Inclusion Nudges to inspire how to do this.

  • Judgements of Warmth & Competence on page 131 in The Inclusion Nudges Guidebook and on page 111 in the Inclusion Nudges for Motivating Allies
  • Identical Candidates but Different Ratings on page 101 in The Inclusion Nudges Guidebook and also on page 82 in the Inclusion Nudges for Motivating Allies
  • Show Hidden Patterns in Performance Calibration Data on page 177 in The Inclusion Nudges Guidebook and on page 155 in the Inclusion Nudges for Motivating Allies
  • Show the Hidden People by Reversing the Numbers on page 475 in The Inclusion Nudges Guidebook and also on page 171 in the Inclusion Nudges for Leaders and on page 181 in the Inclusion Nudges for Motivating Allies
  • Colour Code People to Ensure Meritocracy on page 322 in The Inclusion Nudges Guidebook and on page 158 in the Inclusion Nudges for Talent Selection

And there are many more in the Inclusion Nudges books

Thanks again for your question, Christie, and let us know what works for you.

Thank you for asking the question.

Lisa & Tinna

Got a question about Inclusion Nudges and how to use these designs to achieve your diversity, equity, & inclusion initiatives?

Send us your questions to tinna_and_lisa@inclusion-nudges.org

Questions will be slightly edited to fit the posting and for confidentiality as needed.

Want to learn more?

The Inclusion Nudges Guidebook (2020) for change makers gives you 100 examples of Inclusion Nudges

Inclusion Nudges Guidebook

The Action Guide series are shorter plug-and-play guides with 30 targeted Inclusion Nudges:

Inclusion Nudges for Leaders

Inclusion Nudges for Talent Selection

Inclusion Nudges for Motivating Allies

You can learn more and get other free resources on the Inclusion Nudges platform inclusion-nudges.org

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