The Paradox of Meritocracy – in Tech



The more you understand about the way people think and systems (designed by people) work, the more complicated life becomes. Having got much deeper into unconscious bias recently for my sessions at SXSW with Shari Slate from CISCO (see some take aways from that HERE) I have been focused recently on a counter intuitive bias related phenomenon – the “Paradox of Meritocracy”. The phrase was coined by Emilio Castilla (MIT) and Stephen Benard (Indiana University) in an intriguing study that looked at the connection between what organizations SAY about meritocracy and what they actually DO, as manifested in outcomes. (So do they walk the talk, or just talk the talk?)

In their words they looked to assess whether:

“certain management efforts to promote meritocracy in the workplace may have the causal effect of increasing ascriptive bias in the translation of employee performance into rewards and other career outcomes.”

They conclude with this sobering assessment:

“The central contribution of this study is to demonstrate that the causal effect of introducing meritocratic cultures and merit-based practices cannot be taken for granted. Instead, and paradoxically, the implementation of such organizational routines and efforts may have hidden risks and should therefore be undertaken with care.”

Hence the Paradox of Meritocracy. Namely that the well intentioned pursuit of meritocracy can, other things being equal, lead to less meritocratic outcomes than might otherwise have been the case. One example from the research study: when evaluating a woman and man with the same resume, individuals primed to believe that a company has a meritocratic ethos were more likely to recommended a bigger bonus for the man!

Indeed promoting meritocracy in organizations can, perversely, actually activate bias. Incidentally this is something that has also been noted in connection with unconscious bias training. Lisa Kepinski, who has extensive experience in this area from work at HP, Microsoft and AXA, recently summarized this dilemma and advocates for “nudge” solutions to address the adverse effects of unconscious bias. Which is not to say that all unconscious bias training is counter productive, rather that it needs to be delivered thoughtfully … like removing the word bias and focusing on positive outcomes and benefits. (Talking explicitly about bias can trigger defensiveness very quickly: over do the bias stuff and pretty quickly I think you are calling me a “bad” person. Not a recipe to get me engaged and with the program!)

While the context of the Castilla/Benard research is different the same concept seems to apply, and apply big in my view, to Venture Capital (VC) in particular and indeed much of the tech space. Hence also to the debate about diversity in tech more broadly. In the case of VC some prominent leaders have been role models (not in a good way) for the mindset which essentially says – “I and my organization are purely meritocratic … even though I have zero [insert name of large under represented demographic] on my team.” Exhibit A perhaps being Michael Moritz from Sequoia addressing this in a Bloomberg TV interview with Emily Chang.

The push back is growing on this, all too common, distortion of meritocracy – when affinity bias makes it a mirrorocracy where, surprise surprise, the most capable and hard working people I can hire are … people just like me!

Amongst many great initiatives I was especially encouraging to see Project Include come together recently, both as a powerful voice of advocacy and provider of resources for tech start-ups who want to embed diversity from the get go, but also as a mechanism to co-opt VC leaders to affirm that they are “doing the right thing”. In my own small way I am delighted to be able to contribute to that initiative.

Reprinted by permission.

Image credit: CC by Mr Weasely

About the author: Adam Quinton

Adam is Founder/CEO of Lucas Point Ventures and an active investor in and advisor to early stage companies. His investments include The MuseRapt Media, VenueBook, Hire an Esquire, Valdiatelyand Snaps. He recently served as Chief Financial Officer of NYC based cybersecurity company NopSec, another of his investees. In 2014, he was named one of the 25 Angel Investors You Need to Know in New York by AlleyWatch.

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