A belief in meritocracy is not only false: it’s bad for you

Most people don't just think the world should be run meritocratically, they think it is meritocratic.

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'We are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else …' Barack Obama, inaugural address, 2013

'We must create a level playing field for American companies and workers.' Donald Trump, inaugural address, 2017

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Why meritocracy is America’s most destructive myth

Meritocracy doesn't work when some people benefit from the system disproportionately.

  • When fighting for social justice, there is a difference between equality and equity.
  • It's not radical to fight for a world where everyone has the same access to education, has food, and is equal in the eyes of the criminal justice system.
  • There is no real meritocracy if some people disproportionately benefit from the system just because of their skin color.
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Why hiring the ‘best’ people produces the least creative results

Complex problems undermine the very principle of meritocracy: the idea that the ‘best person’ should be hired. There is no best person.

Florida Unemployment Rate Reaches 9.4 Percent (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

While in graduate school in mathematics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I took a logic course from David Griffeath. The class was fun. Griffeath brought a playfulness and openness to problems. Much to my delight, about a decade later, I ran into him at a conference on traffic models. During a presentation on computational models of traffic jams, his hand went up. I wondered what Griffeath – a mathematical logician – would have to say about traffic jams. He did not disappoint. Without even a hint of excitement in his voice, he said: ‘If you are modelling a traffic jam, you should just keep track of the non-cars.’ 

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Why Diversity Is More Important Than Having a Meritocracy

Look at Wall Street in 2008, and the White House right now. Diversity—of people and cognitive perspectives—is crucial for avoiding failure.

We need to rethink our diversity strategy, says Sallie Krawcheck. What we've been trying for the last decade hasn't been working, but what exactly is the problem? Research reveals that diversity is actually worse in meritocracies. Managers—and particularly middle managers, Krawcheck points out—fall into the cognitive trap of hiring people who "remind me of a young me" (i.e. look like them and think like them) instead of more cognitively diverse people who would bring a missing skill set to a team. This is as important now, under the almost all-white male Trump administration, as it was in the 2008 Financial Crash. Wall Street is one of the most homogenous institutions in America, and Krawcheck has no doubt that having a more diverse set of minds in finance would have lessened the severity of the global crash. In addition, risk-taking and the poor decision making that results can be tracked to fluctuations in one hormone: testosterone. Whether it's the housing bubble, America's healthcare, or foreign policy, these are mistakes that affect millions of lives. As a CEO, Krawcheck's approach and advice on diversity is changing. The current strategy has been a failure, but what if companies paid their managers, in part, based on the diversity of their hires? What if we thought of diversity as more important than meritocracy? Sallie Krawcheck is the author of Own It: The Power of Women at Work.