Research shows — paradoxically — that the more organisations believe they are meritocracies, the more likely their leaders are to show bias.

Most people we meet in business believe that everyone should be judged on their merits and not factors such as race or gender. But, to make progress on gender equality and reap the benefits of diversity, we must confront the often unintended obstacle that our use of the concept of ‘merit’ presents.

Too often decision-makers think they’re selecting the best person for the job on the basis of merit, but in fact they’re favouring people who look like them or think like them and ignoring attributes required by organisations to meet its future needs. By mistakenly believing they can innately recognise the package of admirable qualities that defines merit, they devalue merit and fall into the merit trap. In practice, this often means a bias in favour of men over women who have the skills and potential required by the organisation in the future.

Tomorrow’s businesses will look different to those of today, so we should expect our future leaders to have different backgrounds, skill sets and leadership styles to those of today. If we continue to define merit as ‘people like us’ who have done what we have done, we will get more of the same, and not be able to meet the challenges of the future.

Avoiding the Merit Trap

Spotting the merit trap warning signs can be as simple as tuning into conversations at decision making time. Perhaps like us you’ve heard “She’s a great performer, but some people think she’s aloof,” “She’s great but she’s not ready yet,” or even “She gets things done but she’s too aggressive.” These statements reveal common biases that research tells us are unfounded. For example, certain behaviours in men that are seen as ‘commercial’ are seen as ‘aggressive’ in women. In our experience, organisations are prepared to take a bigger risk when appointing a man than when appointing a woman.

As leaders we must check ourselves when we declare “I always appoint the best person for the job.” It’s well worth posing some questions like: Is your preferred candidate just like you? Does your organisation struggle to keep diverse recruits? Are the candidates you deem risky those with different leadership styles? Do you consider the impact each candidate will make as a team member, as well as a leader? Are your hiring criteria based on future needs?

Merit is context driven and this is where a good, hard look at organisational processes is vital. For an appointment to be truly meritorious, the decision making process must include a critical evaluation of:

  • potential as well as past performance;
  • impact as a team member as well as an individual contributor;
  • the processes in place to minimise bias in decision making;
  • your organisation’s future needs;
  • agility to face disruptive competitors.

If more organisations examine their use of merit, a new generation will step up and shape our economy and the old definition of merit – that is somebody who looks and thinks like me – will be a thing of the past.

Diversity


Chief Executive Women and the Male Champions of Change aim to achieve a significant and sustainable increase in the representation of women in leadership. Their latest joint report, In the Eye of the Beholder: Avoiding the Merit Trap, is available here.