“As we “knowledge workers” know, clever people aren’t always the most collaborative. And what they have in brainpower, they often lack in empathy. We live, after all, in a cognitive meritocracy in which IQ is valued much more highly than EQ (emotional intelligence) or most physical abilities. Those who want to succeed are incentivised to use their head — neither hearts nor hands get quite as much exercise.”

Rana Foroohar wrote this in her article ‘Why meritocracy isn’t working’ for the FT. In our merit based world, we want to see those who ‘succeed’ as winners, and those who don’t as failures. And as a result of this, as Michael Sandel said, ‘the winner deserves his winnings’. This central idea means there is a ‘dark side’ to meritocracy. We subscribe great meaning and connotation to winners and failures since people’s socio-economic standing is based on merit. If you are of lower standing, you have failed in this world with upward mobility, you have not succeeded in winning at the game of meritocracy. However, meritocracy fails to realise an important factor in social economic status. And this is that not everyone has an equal chance to rise up. We have to ask ourselves, why is there a glass, bamboo or any ceiling if everything is based on merit? Gender and racial inequalities have not been eliminated. Your socio-economic standing will be passed on to your children.

The winners

The idea that ‘the winner deserves his winnings’, has been reiterated by Richard Reeves as he discussed Michael Young’s novel about a dystopian meritocratic society. Reeves asks, why

would you want to give away money when you have earned your money from merit? This question matters, it points to a missing mindfulness of the common good, it is the reason we hear so much of ‘why are my taxes paying for the unemployed to live off benefits?’. Insisting that the success we have is self-made and is not due to circumstance or luck, makes it harder to empathise with others. We assume that working means we automatically contribute to the common good, and the money we make is our contribution to the common good, Michael Sandel points out. We have been incentivised through meritocracy to use out heads, which is then measured and rewarded, not for using our hearts to empathise and emote to others.

Education, is a large division in our meritocracy.

Universities are the “arbiters of opportunity”, Ivy League educations promise success, upward mobility and a life emblazoned in gold. However, it is the 1% that end up attending these universities. Furthermore, what message does it send if you don’t end up in a ‘perfect’, high paying job? That you have failed because you have not earned a position in the upper echelons of society after your Ivy League education. To evolve the concept of meritocracy to include empathy and compassion, a degree will not be the measure of success. As Michael Young wrote, “now that people are classified by ability, the gap between the classes has inevitably become wider. The upper classes are . . . no longer weakened by self-doubt and self-criticism.”. Sandel reiterates this by insisting that humility is the civic virtue needed now. But, in the world we live in now, in this pandemic, where we have praised the nurses, care-givers and delivery drivers, who are not paid the most, we have “illuminated how essential other types of workers … can be”. The contributions these key workers have made to society has not been about the money they make.The merit of an individual is a subtle and complex idea, but meritocracy has assumed that it is a measurable number based on a grade in school or a number on a pay check. Furthermore, this number is concluded to be reflective of what you are like as a human.

The ramifications of this if you are one of these people of lower status in this hierarchy, as quoted in the FT article,

“Anne Case and Angus Deaton spelt out the toll this has taken on working-class white men in particular. Contempt can be just as lethal as poverty — low status in a hierarchy produces the stress and anxiety that trigger immune system-damaging cortisol to be released in the body.”

What we hold onto

Meritocracy can evolve, the sentiment discarding nepotism or feudalism is one to hold on to. But, the nuances and complexities of one’s circumstances or advantages, if you are say male, white, born into wealth need to be factored into how you have earned your position and wealth in society. What meritocracy says of you, if you have not climbed up the ladder with every opportunity available to you is one to re-think. We like to sort people into boxes and our cultural programming is internalised, so we develop ideals about the people we put into these different boxes. We as humans want to fly with our flock, so we are less likely to cross socio-economic lines in the meritocratic system, as Reeves stated, in the US people are more likely to marry across racial lines, than socio-economic lines, we are preoccupied by the idea that if we marry in the same IQ bracket, our children will have a high IQ and succeed. As with multiculturalism, it is leadership that acts with compassion, understanding and heart, which will decide to ascribe more than your score on your report card. Your personality and being is not defined solely by your IQ, but EQ is equally important.

In the 21st century, it is time to reimagine the rules of older games we play like musical chairs, instead of taking away chairs, it is time to add them.

Gulnar Vaswani is a Diversity & Inclusion consultant, thought–leader, board advisor and executive coach to CEOs. Social scientist meets spiritual warrior, Gulnar is re-imagining leadership for the 21st Century. Against the backdrop of today’s increasingly uncertain world, she consults leaders and their organizations in inclusiveness, cross-cultural dynamics, diversity and the power of change.

To read the full FT article please click this link: https://on.ft.com/35uO4Qk

A talent management strategist, board advisor and executive coach to CEO’s, specialised in Diversity and Inclusion