This trip (I’ve been on the road, at a conference and then in meetings in a different city) has been more challenging than I anticipated, so forgive a short but hopefully at least entertaining submission in lieu of the usual fare.
I’ve become fond of this little video. One thing that readers comment on from time to time is how, while most social animal species exhibit cheating, at the same time, they also have ways to punish cheaters. This seems to be the result of trying to strike a balance between competition and collaboration. Although I haven’t seen the underlying research (hint, links or citations welcome) my understanding is that there is research that supports this idea. Societies that spend too much effort on enforcing internal compliance divert energy away from food-gathering and defense against external threats. And societies that allow too much cheating are similarly vulnerable to external threats and dissolution due to strife and animosity.
Here we are reminded how deeply ingrained the idea of fairness is (hat tip TM):
But in that study, the unfairness was made apparent. Most people like to believe that society and/or their workplace is fair. As we wrote in 2007:
OK, so diversity programs may not serve the people they are designed to help. One of the reasons is that these initiatives are assumed to undermine merit-based hiring and promotion. Indeed, as [transgendered scientist] Barres points out, citing research, “When it comes to bias, it seems that the desire to believe in a meritocracy is so powerful that until a person has experienced suf- ficient career-harming bias themselves they simply do not believe it exists.” But the idea that an organization can be truly meritocratic is, alas, a fiction.
On a practical level, the best a company can hope for is that, taken as a whole, the people it hires and promotes are “better”—as defined by the company—than the people it rejects. On an individual level, the role of luck, com- bined with inherent shortcomings of performance-appraisal systems, make it impossible to have confidence in the fairness and accuracy of any particular staffing decision…..
Now, for most people, it’s well nigh impossible to pick apart the importance of ability versus good fortune. Yet early career decisions and moves often have an arbitrary element (a young person takes a rotation into a new area that takes off, or has a bad run of assignments and gets discouraged) that can influence later career success.
Other factors can thwart an organization’s meritocratic efforts (many of these observations derive from a 1992 paper by Patrick D. Larkey and Jonathan P. Caulkin, “All Above Average and Other Unintended Consequences of Performance Appraisal Systems”). Many people, for instance, run up against conflicts between individual and organizational interests. Implicitly, any employee’s job is to serve his boss, when his check is actually being cut by the company. If the employee views his role as being different than his boss sees it, the boss’s view prevails, whether or not it is correct. In an extreme case, if the boss wants the employee to run personal errands, and the employee refuses, he runs the risk of getting a negative review.
There’s the Peter Principle conundrum that the skill requirements at one level may bear little relationship to the de- mands of the next. You’ve heard the old chestnut, “Promote your best salesman, and you lose a good salesman and gain a lousy manager.” But this situation puts bosses in a real bind. If you promote the person who is best in a department, his skills may fall woefully short of the requirements of his new role. But if you promote the person you deem best suited for that job, and not the top performer at his current role, you will demoralize hisformer peers, create resentment against him (undermining his authority and effectiveness), and raise questions about your judgment.
And then there are difficulties in ranking employees across organizational units. Even though organizations want consistent ratings firmwide, it’s a practical impossibility. There are considerable barriers to a manager giving his staff member honest and useful feedback that lead to inflated ratings. They have an ongoing relationship; and thus both sides do not want the review process to create friction. Yet most employees have an inflated view of their achievements, which predisposes them to doubt, perhaps even resent, a truthful appraisal. And since the assessment of a job of any complexity is largely subjective, it’s difficult for the boss to defend a rating that is at odds with the employee’s self-assessment. In addition, managers consider themselves at least partly responsible for their subordinate’s performance. Thus a low rating reflects badly on them.
The consequences are profound. It means that the typical defense against the failure to achieve diversity, that the company was in fact hiring and promoting based on achievement, is hollow. These systems not only are subjective (inherent to most ratings) but also often lead to capricious, even unfair results.
None of the foregoing is news to people who have spent much time in large organizations. Yet my gut instinct is that until recently (sometime in the 2000s) most people believed that society on the whole produced pretty fair outcomes, that although some people who got ahead were schemers, cheats, or just very lucky, for the most part, the people who did well were more talented (or at least “more talented” relative to what their job required) and harder working than the people who didn’t get ahead. I’m not sure what has punctured that myth (lack of economic mobility? too many people with graduate degrees or undergraduate degrees in supposedly employable majors working in coffee shops? too many people at all levels working frantically just to get by, eviscerating the belief that sincere effort eventually pays off?). It might be revealing if any readers either have seen their own views change or have seen how friends and colleagues attitudes have shifted and can identify the triggers or experiences that produced their change in outlook.