The Merits (and Miscues) of Meritocracy

In October, we presented  Cultivating Cultural Competence: Taking Responsibility for Respectful and Productive Workplace Dialogue and Relationships for a Southeastern US law firm’s multiple locations. During those programs we had an important discussion about the idea of “meritocracy” being the barometer for promotions and assignments. One character in our film vignette, "Par for the Course," lampoons an apparently common speech by the firm's founding partner that the firm is a "meritocracy," meaning that in his eyes, everyone has a chance to rise or fall on his or her own performance.

The scene prompted a good discussion about the role of "merit" in work assignments, pay, and promotions. Many folks suggested that the concept in theory is a good one. However, the challenge is that a pure meritocracy doesn’t truly exist if implicit or explicit bias impacts decision-making about such things as doling out new cases and clients.

In another session, a different partner questioned why we were "demonizing meritocracy." Michael and I looked at each other for a moment, unsure who should field that question.  Beautifully on cue, a female senior partner rose to the occasion, and kindly but leaving no words minced suggested that no one was demonizing anything, but that the concept was an easier one to defend as a white male who had already risen through the ranks. 

Another partner astutely pointed out that a younger lawyer may initially get multiple assignments due to connections, or what is known as "affinity bias"--the tendency that all of us have to favor and provide opportunities disproportionately to people who look a lot like ourselves, or have similar backgrounds. After a while, the junior lawyer may have gained such experience that he would have a leg up on getting future assignments that are based ostensibly on "merit." Thus, the decision-makers could ultimately use meritocracy as a rationale or defense for a decision regarding future assignments, or even partnership, and may be blind to the role that bias may have played in affecting a decision-maker's perceptions of merit.

We share this story not to air the dirty laundry of a client; in fact, we dearly love this firm and its leadership, and are grateful that it is putting serious time and resources into addressing where its diversity and inclusion efforts may be falling short of what they have been aiming for. This give and take is illustrative of the kind of courageous conversations we feel privileged to be a part of. Only by naming and owning its challenges, with no sugarcoating, and creating a safe environment for dissent, pushback, and consideration of multiple viewpoints of the people affected can any organization effectively pursue lasting change.