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K Ramkumar, known to his friends as Ram, has an enduring passion for triggering a discussion and joining in with gusto on a range of themes. He believes that every person has an inalienable right to express his/her view no matter how different it is to anyone else. In his book no view is unworthy or big or small. Every view from everyone deserves a consideration without getting caught up with the tyranny of agreement or disagreement.
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Meritocracy: A Bitter-Sweet Choice

In 1984 after completing my Post Graduation, I had rejected a rare campus offer those days, from Mettur Beardsell (current Madura Garments) Ltd. and opted for Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd., a PSU. My uncle who had retired from Bharat Petroleum, a PSU but had joined this company when it was Burma Shell Ltd., a multi-national Private company lambasted me for opting out of what he called a meritocracy and opting for the mediocrity, driven by the need for job security. Having seen both the worlds, I reckon he was convinced that the job-security to reward trade off should be made in favour of rewards.

This was the first time as a 23 year old I heard the word meritocracy. Thereafter since 1990 I have been part of one meritocratic organisation or the other at least that is how we have been conditioned to view multi-national and private organisations. During the last 15 years the term meritocracy has become the buzz word for leaders as well as employees. However, we frame the meaning of this in a convenient manner. In our definition big bonuses, fat increments, accelerated promotions, etc. qualify to be meritocratic. The moment we assign performance differentiation and do consequence management such as no bonus, no increment or even asking those rated low to leave the organisation, it becomes draconian. In my experience, this dichotomy exists not only in the minds of the employees but also in most of the leaders.

Many of us fail to understand that meritocracy is a choice that both organisations and individuals make. It is also important for us to comprehend that the core of meritocracy is the risk reward equation. Until the mid 90’s even in the best multi-national organisation the rewards were more in the form of reasonable paced promotions than highly differentiated bonuses. Thus, the impact of risk reward equation was very minimal.

I can confirm that HLL, ICI and ICICI until the turn of this millennium had very moderate level increments and there was nothing to write home about bonus. The concept of wealth creation through stock options was being tentatively experimented with. The more important part of the equation the risk side almost never manifested, especially for the middle and the senior management. The power of the unions made it near impossible for the risk to manifest with the non-management staff, including the sales force. The only risk was a probationer not being confirmed. All this has changed in last 12 years.

The essence of meritocracy is that outcomes mainly and to a lesser extent competence should be the determiner of rewards and exits. In this definition loyalty, hard work and even discipline counts for nothing. This definition moved the emphasis from effort and potential ability to measurable or verifiable output. Meritocracy borrowed its conceptual moorings from the world of sports such as:

  • How good are you in relation to the competition?
  • Did you win or lose? Did you at least outperform your best to date?
  • How many you scored does not matter? It only matters whether it was one higher than the competition – external and internal.
  • The bar constantly moves up – Allegorically and literally.
  • Targets became aspirational; aligned to both institutional and individual ambition. How high was high and how fast was fast, lost its significance. It now only mattered how much further than the nearest competition and how much faster than the peers. The oft told story that you have to only out run your peer to escape a tiger exemplifies this.
  • The capital markets became the ultimate arbiter of the Corporate league standings and hence the reward to both the owner and the players of the “Corporate clubs”.
  • The premium for player transfer from one Corporate club to the other started mimicking the sports leagues of the world. Concepts such as, “maximum job value” or the right price for a job became obsolete.
  • Induction of new vocabulary such as “War for talent” and “Talent management” replaced more moderate corporate terminologies. Suddenly a bank clerk & an electrician were as much talent as a fresher from a B-school or a CEO. Job seekers now reflected this new ethos and started seeing themselves as talent being traded in the talent capital markets, where the value was more the potential (PE Multiples) and upped their ante.

This hunky dory world made people blind to the risk aspect of the equation. As they say nothing comes free in the world. The club that paid a premium to buy you will be impatient for you to deliver. Otherwise like the owners of Chelsea, Man U or Real Madrid the Corporate clubs will also have a revolving door. The one through which you came in as a hero will now beckon you to be thrown out as a failure. David Moyes found it out last month, after just 10 months with Manchester United.

Do we not check out our risk appetite before we decide to invest our money? So why then do we not do so with our ability, which is our capital? Does anyone of us choose to invest in capital markets when our risk appetite is for the safe fixed deposit? Sure the rewards are meagre in FD compared to trading equity. Does any one of us invest in property whose value is much beyond us, by taking loans beyond our ability and court misery? So why then do we do these mistakes when we choose jobs and organisations?

This is where our limited understanding of meritocracy fuelled by our ambition plays games with us. We presume that meritocratic organisations will only shower us with the rewards and the associated risks will not manifest; at least for us. This would have been called a gamble if we had adopted this approach with our investments. As long as the expected rewards materialises we eulogise the organisation but the moment the risks materialise we conveniently find the same policies, which rewarded us faulty. In addition to this we discover new meanings about the value of loyalty. We conveniently forget that it is loyalty that we have traded for reward premium.

It is even more bizarre that we demand loyalty from the institution and want it to be patient and give us more time and opportunity, to get over a bad spell in delivering output. Let us counter pose this expectation with the loyalty which we are prepared to give to the same institution. Most of us become disinterested in our jobs the day we receive and accept an offer from another competing institution. We want to be relieved of our duties immediately, so that we can maximise the new premium which we have negotiated with the competitor. In rare cases where the institution wants us to continue till they find a replacement, we throw a fit and accuse the organisation with which we were associated thus far. So the moral of the story is that there is no place for loyalty in a meritocratic pursuit. We get the loyalty and forbearance that we give.

Meritocracy is a race; it is a competition; its ideal is in pursuit of excellence. The standards that the competition sets are non-negotiable. No point in complaining about how realistic these standards are. You entered this competition by choice and you can exit it if the new changed standards do not agree with your abilities or you will be forced out by the organisation no matter whether you think it is fair or not.  Let us say you enrol and qualify to compete in the Tour de France; the premium cycling marathon in the world. This is a gruelling 2900 km over some 22 days meandering through Alps, Pyrenees and the valleys of Europe. The competing field sets the standards year after year. If your fitness, technique and support from the other cyclists in your team are inadequate, the least is you will be eliminated from the competition and the worst is you will have serious injuries, because your muscles will tear and cease. This is the risk in meritocracies. If people chose them only for the rewards and do not day after day take care of fitness, ability and team support they will be punished mercilessly.

The Olympic motto is “Citius, Altius, Fortius” meaning “Faster, Higher, Stronger”. No doubt it is inspiring and even rewarding. But also remember that this is a metaphor of relativity; meaning you are only perceived as good as how better you are in relation to a fellow competitor and your own best performance of the past. Meritocracy demands the triple jump in quantity, quality and consistency.

In conclusion it is important to place meritocracy in context and understand the true meaning before we worship it blindly. This is an ideal everyone has to embrace for wealth, progress and prosperity: Countries, Institutions and Individuals. But its consequences are bitter-sweet. It is a fantasy to believe that only the sweetness will materialise and the bitterness does not exist.

When blind pursuit of reward and when vaulting career ambition overtakes ability, the bitter side of the equation comes to roost. Sometimes breaks the heart. Yes I mean both emotional and cardiac health.

Users, especially leaders beware! Meritocracy promotes excellence, prevents institutions from decay and even makes them last longer yet inevitably leaves behind debris in the form of perpetually anxious leaders and employees, a few destabilised homes (at least temporarily), hurt sentiments and individualism. True these can be mitigated by care and sensitivity, but in the end whether we like it and accept it or not, the core of meritocracy is Darwinian!

 

 

24 comments on “Meritocracy: A Bitter-Sweet Choice
  1. ashish agnihotri says:

    While Meritocracy can be painful for the employee who suddenly finds himself at the receiving end. Organizations deal it in various fashions. Having been based in cities with high IT density, worked in an MNC & having friends in MNC’s the minimum i can say that other organizations do it everytime they face a cost pressure and in most inhuman manner possible.

    Secondly the sword is double edged if you demand better pay for higher productivity, you must understand then that productivity needs to be delivered. continuous mediocrity as pointed in the article causes decay.

  2. Harish says:

    This exposition and caution is well founded. However, i feel that this focuses only on the concept of relative meritocracy and ills associated with competitive recognition. Meritocracy could also be based on absolute standards which in itself could be continuously moving upwards. The way i appreciate meritocracy is as an antithesis of favoritism and bias. Most people who prefer a meritocratic environment chose it for this understanding. The macho reward paradigm based on the philosophy of survival of the fittest few is probably what you are alluding to when you refer to as inevitable side of meritocracy.

  3. Ranjit Nair says:

    Very well written piece.

    While this piece has been written largely from the perspective of employees, I would be interested in hearing your views about how it applies to leaders.

    When all is going well, leaders apply meritocracy to determine the increments that each person gets based on their merit.

    However, in tough times or when someone is underperforming, many leaders shy away from terminating the employment of some employees (again based on their merit). This is largely due to the stigma associated with a dismissal and because leaders don’t want to upset the bonhomie in the organisation.

    I believe that this is something that leaders need to get over since there is no room for carrying around dead wood in a meritocracy. I agree with your point that this needs to be done with sensitivity.

  4. Sriram says:

    Brilliantly written !!! I think the best examples of meritocracy can be emphasized in sports. We as sports fans immediately react adversely when a player not in good form is picked up to play for a side and does miserably, no matter what the person’s previous record is. There are times especially with cricket in India, when a player struggling continues to get a long rope based on his previous exploits and we as fans curse the selectors for persisting with a non performing player.

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  5. K.Ramkumar says:

    The core of the proposition is that meritocracy is a risk -reward choice. As long as this is understood by the leaders and the employees they are more likely to be realistic about the consequences.

    From a leader’s perspective it is an inevitable choice if he wants to avoid decay of the institution. But like most systems how he calibrates it is in his control. Meritocracies can be caring meritocracies or ruthless clinical meritocracies.

    The 5 main anchors of any meritocracy from anyones perspective are:
    – Outcome focus
    – Reward differentiation based strictly on outcomes relative or absolute
    – Fairness and equity in holding the team members accountable for outcomes
    – Decisions on appointments, promotions and exits being normative and not whimsical and
    – Above all aspirational goals and standards. The realistic or unrealistic nature of them is a matter of whose point of view it is.

    When in a system meritocracy is applied to the juniors and the seniors work under a self patronage it is cronyism. It is here that the Governance structures should kick in and play the conscious keeper.

    For example if two sets of employees are judged and rewarded by different standards it still theoratically is a meritocracy but a crony meritocracy, if the seniors are patronised more and the juniors are punished by stricter norms on rewards and exits.

    Equally cronyism is evident when the performance accountability as evidenced through ratings and rewards differntiation is lienient or absent at the leadership level and is acute at the coal facing level.

    A ruthless meritocracy is something which uses its employees as cannon fodder. In this system the officers direct from the safe environ of their offices and send their troops to face the bullets. They use analytics, cold numbers, systems and concall reviews and do not sweat shoulder to shoulder on the field with their staff.

    A caring meritocracy recognises the power of aspirational standards, goals and targets. But its leaders work in the field shoulder to shoulder with the staff and show them how it is done by demonstration and not analytics only.

    They also are like Imran Khan, Saurav Ganguly, Alan Border and MSD who give reasonable time to their younger and inexperienced staff to learn the tricks of the game and also soak into the pressure of performing and finally use reviews to focus on how it is done instead of being trigger happy in sacking one after the other. They also do not dangle only money as incentives and bonus and say if you want the money you go and find the way and I will review and judge you inside my conference room or tele con or on whatever system they use.

    Even when they choose the ultimate action of exiting the staff who after all this do not measure up, they do by giving the staff sufficient time to rearrange his life, yet they will be firm that the exit is inevitable. The leaders in this system of caring meritocracy will not avoid taking tough decisions but will do it with sensitivity and responsibility like a doctor who does an amputation and not a butcher who is hacking. They are consumed by the moral dimension of their actions and are not swept away by the considerations of only task outcomes.

    In short leaders can choose a meritocracy with both heart and mind or limit themselves to using their employees as instruments for their and their institutions economic considerations only.

  6. Sriram says:

    Well said, from the caring perspective there is another angle that we can look at. Everyone is talented in one way or the other and it needs to be channelized in the right path. I have seen examples of people who were bottom performers in an organization and were asked to move on, the same person however in a different profile and in a different oraganization turned out to be an award winning employee. Usain Bolt might have been just another average fast bowler for the West Indies had he not taken the course correction. MS Dhoni might have been just a goalie for any of the state level teams, had he not moved to cricket. Hence, its important that one realizes that and the caring leader needs to communicate this to all the employees.

  7. sai prasad somayajula says:

    Meritocracy is a risk reward proposition from both leaders and employees side is well understood through this article. But, I wonder if organizations today are skewing towards taking more risk than warranted by placing bets on potential for line of sight(PE multiple) rather than based on performance (verifiable output). Is it time to reflect on the pitfalls of this skewness or merits of a rebalance? As Sriram opined, a person may deliver in a new/different role significantly better, though no such positive signs have been beamed in the current role, since those signs are not relevant for the present role?

  8. satish says:

    Very well written….While you have justified the organizations that encourage meritocracy, Some how I feel it should be viewed with caution in Indian context at least in non MNC s.

    In countries like India where the employers are still in evolution stage ,economic goals are given preference over other goals of the organization.Most of the times the employers are in dominant position Visa-vis employee-employers relations are concerned, It invariably leads to a situation where employees at receiving end has very little chance to explain their story. At prima facie I can see that many organizations take due care avoiding the themselves talking about sacking of people while projecting themselves as “meritocratic” in all their formal communications with the fear of creating a “employee unfriendly ” image. Also while rewards and bonuses are regular affairs at every performance cycle exercise of decreasing work force are need based .Also the system of bell curves and relative performance evolution will compel mangers to classify some of the employees as in capable even though they may not personally feel so.

    Many a times employee performance evolution models fail to capture the merits and demerits of the different business environments of the sample, this can happen because of flaws in organizational policies or misinterpretation of “Meritocracy” by managers in lower strata. Unfortunately It has a serious consequence of loosing most valuable employees who are capable of improving company fortunes many folds with one single idea!!!!

    In my view employers with great ambitions cannot afford to apply this method because of two main reasons, risk of loosing valuable employees and negative Image created out of this.
    Some of the alternatives for organization should be to encourage innovation in job handling there by ensuring enough diversity in job profiles to accommodate employees with different psyche profiles and focus on developing easy procedures to allow lateral migration among different departments .

    One interesting fact that leaders should notice is technology has made many job tasks much easier much beyond human capabilities .It is proved that most of the times low performance of the employee is not because of lack of caliber but because of lack of morale. Unfortunately this exercise of removing the the employees with low morale will not solve the problem.

    So the best choice would to hit the roots of the problem by leveraging innovation and technology and employee friendly policies.

  9. sudipto Nag says:

    This indeed is a very thought provocative article. We need to do a self-introspection to understand the importance of continuous capability building to stay competitive enough and to be considered amongst the best of the best since yesterday’s best need not necessarily be today’s best and only pure dedication, effort, loyalty, obedience are not good enough to be in the race of changing times where customer preference, patience, and easy access to research data continuously drives the benchmark up making yesterday’s benchmark as today’s threshold. In the past we have witnessed mobile phones having shelf life of 2 -3 whereas today’s best-selling car models have a shelf life of just 1-2 years. Be it a process or manpower or technology the capability building will decide the existence and shelf life.
    Here I would like to draw an example of Sourav Ganguly, one of the most successful cricketers the world has witnessed. While leading Pune warriors in IPL T20 format it was visible that he was grappling for flexibility and fitness though there was no compromise in his effort, loyalty, dedication and above all passion for cricket. Only the capability factor was not to an expected standard of a lead player to match with the changing benchmark of recent times. Earlier in T20 format a run rate of 8 was considered to be a best score but in this last IPL we have witnessed that even a run rate of 10 was not good enough to set the dominance and to deliver a run rate of 10 it required a different level of skill set ,capability and technique. All I want to say is capability building is an ongoing process to remove redundancy and to stay ahead of time.
    Choice is with us on how fast we can adapt and build unmatched capability to be ahead in the race of benchmark delivery.

  10. Arun says:

    Hi,

    Another thought provoking article, this one. Let me add a few points, and maybe a different viewpoint on to it.

    Meritocracy is, from what I understand, rewarding the employees in an organization as per merit of the work they deliver. Assuming there are 4 rating points, the reward would disproportionately increase from 4th to 1st. Completely understandable and acceptable.
    On the flipside, the employees who cannot perform have to move out, and find a different profession, a different place of work, a different career.

    Now, this is where I want to make a few observations.
    1. Why cant an organization be completely meritocratic? Meaning, why should there be any limit on how fast, or how far an employee can grow?
    2. Why are the kid gloves required? Meaning, why not ensure, at the point of hiring, that the people being hired are motivated folks, geared to deliver the best, and are also clear that failure would mean unpleasant consequences? Why not take off the bad performers?

    I think, the answer to these questions lie with the leaders in the first case, and our culture in the second.

    In the first case, there would be a demanding set of employees, who are geared, who deliver, and who demand rewards of the company. Leaders are probably not yet comfortable with this set of employees. The idea of employees demanding fast growth, the way managers demand stretched targets of their employees, is not something leaders are not very comfortable with. Why should an employee, who earns a 50k a month, but who has delivered an exponential growth in business, be content with a top rating from any firm which would give him maybe a 20-25% hike. Why not demand, and get a 50-100% hike if he has delivered such growth (there are indeed places, where there is no cap on the rewards one can earn provided one goes above the set target, depending on how much he overachieves)? Why be bound by the organizational rules and superiors helplessness and be satisfied with a 20% hike, and deliver for 3-4 years to get a 100% hike?

    When a manager gives a stretched target, why should an employee not ask “what will I get if I deliver”? A top rating? And what is the actual benefit I get from getting a top rating? Not many managers would be able to answer that. Just a thought….

    In the second case, though many firms brand themselves as meritocracies, they loathe the task of removing a bad performing employee. Sure, a case must be made for employees who could not deliver due to genuine reasons, if they are skilful. But why any consideration with the others? I guess it has a lot to do with values drilled into us by our previous generation, and the job safety aspect (am sure many of us would have parents who joined and retired from the same firm after a lifetime of working), and the empathy drilled into us all at our homes. Also, media plays a role in this, and the hue and cry raised every time a noteworthy organization lays of people is enough to dissuade many.
    Another aspect to this is that, in many cases, the managers themselves are not sure that the employees at the bottom should be there, but rather, have been forced to put people at the bottom due to the system requirements. Hence they dread the situation wherein they have to speak to the employee of his imminent departure. Also, if someones favoritism has led to this condition, they will be hard put.

    Now, put together, these 2 tasks will pose a unique and severe problem for many firms. Since they cannot take off the non performing employees, they will be carrying quite a bit of extra weight. This will make them formulate policies of a promotion every 3-4-5 years, or limited 20% hikes for top performers, as overall, the costs have to be under control. Which will lead to a cycle of the real top performers, who will not have any dearth of opportunities, moving elsewhere, to truer meritocracies. And then the next best become the top performers (and they will stick on), come next year.

    It is my view that this is not the best path for an organization.

    As far as any employee is concerned, you have to ask yourself, what is it that you need? While its all well to aspire to be a driven person like Di Caprio as the Wolf of the Wall Street, not everyone is made like that. And without getting that fact, if you jump into a ruthless meritocracy, thinking that it will eventually make a wolf out of you (well it actually might, sometime) and you will be showered with rewards, you may be in for a rude shock. Hence choose wisely, peace of mind comes only when you are competent in handling your assigned responsibility. Understand what you are getting into, and accept it fully. On the other hand, if you are a high performer, a driven individual, a REAL wolf, go on where your skill nets you the highest reward.

    I understand that its very easy to put these words and views here, while the leaders running any large organization have to deal with a lot more complexities, and it is extremely difficult for employees to figure out what they should choose. But just my ramble, my point of view….

  11. Sriram says:

    Some points pertaining to what is mentioned by Arun.
    – There is no way that one can go about hiring only top performers, its simply not possible.
    – Even consider an hypothetical situation where one team comprises of all superstars. Then it does not guarantee success. Remember the Real Madrid team which had Beckham, Zidane, Ronaldo, etc. Did they do well that season. Well the answer is no.
    – Rewarding an employee without a cap for high performance, is an option which can be exercised in an organization which is not very large in size and scale. In a large organization it becomes extremely difficult to manage expectations.

    • Arun says:

      Hi sir.

      You got me wrong there. I have not said that only top performers are to be hired. Rather, at the time of hiring, the employee should be clear that he is getting into a true meritocracy and performance is the buzzword. There should be no ambiguity in that. I know of places where people know that even if they don’t perform, they can survive well.
      As regards the Galacticos of Real Madrid, I reckon they won everything there was to win initially. And each of the Galacticos, be it Zizou, Figo or Beckham was clear that they were to keep performing to Real standards or perish. All of them moved once performance dropped and new Galacticos came in. In the bargain, Real always remained a top team ( though Barca have dominated of late), and Each player made the best money possible and became even more famous.

      3rd point is debatable. On the face of it, looks implausible, but why not? For functions generating business definitely workable. Seven Day Weekend by Ricardo Semler shows one way of doing it, how they run it at Semco ( though not entirely like what I said). He starts saying the first thing you think is this cannot work( giving employees freedom and flexibility, expecting responsibility), but the astounding growth of Semco in the period shows it is quite possible. That too in a country like Brazil, a part of BRIC, similar to our country in many ways.
      Also, when we say large organisations, exactly how large is large? Is 10000 employees large? Is it 50000? Or is it 100000? Or should we go in terms of turnover? Many firms we consider large, are actually quite small by world standards. The largest banks or auto companies of India, compared to the Chinese banks or Toyota or VW respectively, illustrate this point very well.
      In the end, what I am saying is let there be no ambiguity on meritocracy, both from employer as well as employees’ sides.

  12. Sonical says:

    I have been hearing Mr. Ram’s analogies of employees with sportsmen since last 6 years. Today I can wonderfully relate these analogies.
    Today employees are facing the similar issues that sportsmen face. When an employee is simply hired, rewarded and moved based on their parents’ influence with senior managers. Nepotism has eaten up every competitive field in India be it Sports or Political or even your own Bank Ram.
    Please do wake up and put a full stop on personal hiring requests forwarded by senior managers. You absolutely don’t know how frustrating environment is being created by these aristocrats

    • Colonel Naresh Sinha says:

      Dear Ram,
      Wonderful perspectives and views being built up here & please do accept my compliments on initiating these thoughts. Meritocracy from both perspectives needs to be understood well by all from an early stage in their career only then there will be no ambiguity.
      I feel we should make these thoughts available to the all Managers . It would help them view things in better perspective which they could use now and later in life when they face challenges as senior leaders with the economy breathing down their necks.They would have to balance business , people and still need to retain the so called REAL Wolves.
      A point I would like to add which concerns organisations is that successful leaders and managers carry with them strong to very strong emotions. They also fall into the success/power trap where they isolate themselves from other’s opinions. This is where the element of subjectivity and personal likes/dislikes turn meritocracy into just a word. From here stems discouragement and unhappiness. I believe that “There is no greater inequality that of the treating of unequals as equals.”
      Would this necessitate that organisations masterfully ground people in power on a regular & planned basis?

  13. Prerna says:

    What is meritocracy? Like truth, like honesty Everyone has a version of it!
    What is mentioned here is probably most commonly accepted definition among the ‘thinkers’ but when implemented becomes cruel. The ‘merit’ is in moving the system and getting the job done. With the increasing focus on outcomes the ‘merit’ocracy leans heavily on outcomes without caring much for process, people, and other softer aspects. It may sound evil to the idealists but if you own the workplace (and i don’t mean it only literally) you would agree.

  14. karan jaswal says:

    Meritocracy – well it is difficult to believe if any organization public or private will base it’s hierarchical movement on anything else!! How the merit is adjudged is rather more important. In this highly frictional competitive world there are bound to be aberrations – remember the fortune 500 failures and so many others! I was really enamoured by the great Leaders in “Leading with Wisdom” by Peter and Kirsten Pruzan , a book which has fascinating insights into the lives of leaders(34 of them) from Infosys, Motorola, Franklin Covey, EnY etc.

  15. Santosh Kumar says:

    Dear Sir,

    I understand that sportsmanship is required in today’s corporate competitive environment. Meritocracy to survive in the organisation may be compared to Darwin theory; survival of the fittest and struggle for existence, natural selection.

    Nature chooses the best organism which can struggle, adapt and survive according to its rule and thus the organizations too.

    Nature provides equal opportunity to all. Nature never cut downs the source of energy, oxygen and water supply to any organism during their time of struggle.

    We need to understand that every finger in the hand are not equal. They work as a team to achieve every goal. How can we rate those fingers if it is made compulsory ? Which finger, we would rate the top and which one, the bottom ? It will depend on simple judgement and relative comparisons and the approach may differ from one person to other.Can we cut down those bottom rated fingers as it is useless as per rating ? Leave the fingers, even the decision to cut the vestigial organs of the body would be tough.

    The meritocracy needs to be properly defined by HR at the stage of recruitment only. Non-meritocratic may be rejected for selection only. The employee who work for 10-15 years for a particular organisation actually loses their golden time to it.Hence, HR department needs to work properly on the strategy of periodic rotation of work & role, proper placement by identifying the actual talent, and knowledge enrichment of employees. The capitalist approach to maximize the profit may put the organization in the position where it loses the confidence of own employees converting them into opportunistic.

    With regards,
    Santosh Kumar

  16. Nisheeth Arora says:

    I have been reading very-well written articles of Mr. Ram and do appereciate his ability to nuance the several dimensions in a sensitive discussion.

    However, my view is that his position has changed over time. I remember having read him write a few years back that work life balance must be maintained and there is no point in someone hurrying up to reach office and unfortunately meeting with an accident. That position seems to have changed and Mr. Kumar’s organisation has imposed a very strict timing discipline as far as reaching office is concerned, but has left it to managers to decide what time people leave office. If employees’s salary can be deducted for coming late even by a minute (barring few exceptions), am not sure whether managers are also being strictly penalized for calling meetings / concalls after office hours (barring few exceptions).

    While there should never be a doubt that persuit of excellence is a raisond’etre of human life, however excessive competitiveness breds unhealthy practices and process in organisations. It fosters a culture which allows spin doctors to flourish. Meritocracy today is a managed phenomena in large organisations and favoritism rears its ugly head more often than not in the form of favorite/aligned managers getting easy assignments, whereas bold, risk-taking managers are consigned to roles set-up for failure; to teach them a lesson and make them fall in line.

    There are no rights or wrongs in life, it is the place where u stand. If the analogy has to be with sports, have 3 things to add.

    1. In a sports team, the coach is the first to go, whereas in organisations,it is the player. No one owns up for strategic failues, only juniourmost people are blamed for poor execution.

    2. In sports, there is no place for loosing team. It is a win or loose situation. In organisations, it is a long term play and many competing organisation srvive and thrive together while the ranking order may keep changing. In addition, contribution of employee is spread over time and lots of environmental factors are at play. Performance is not merely a reflection of individual’s ability.

    3. Sports, music, rock-bands are high-beta professions. Either you are at the top of the world or finished. Very high competition exists. Many parents re-orient their talented children away from these high-risk (high reward) professions and guide them towards the safe heavens of a job, where the rewards are comparatively low, but there is safety.
    + On scales of safety , a private organisation will be fall somewhere between a government job and sports.
    + On sclaes of reward also, a private organisation will fall somewhere between a government job and sports.

    There is always a balance in nature.

    There is no dispute that sharpening of human capital of an organisaion is a positive step,

    + it should be done as a regular exercise rather than a targetted activity.
    + Secondly, performance biases need to be carefully removed since the action is a high-stake action for the affected employees as well the organisation.

    The deft handling of this situation will define the character and future of the organisation and how it wishes to be perceived.

  17. Meritocracy-
    I am 76 years old with varied experience of life. I retired from Indian Railways as General Manager and subsequently also I have been involved with number of MNCs and NGOs. I continued to be as active I can inspite of my physical limitations.
    The article seems to be dealing with ‘Meritocracy’ in Corporate world, while I intend giving my views on the subject in various institution like Government and Academics etc. There are certain features that are applicable to all organizations. In any group of people 10-15 % are really outstanding and even there colleagues acknowledge it. Similarly they are equal number of people at the lowest rung of the ladder whose performance is definitely below par and they accept it. The problem arises in judging the people who constitute the large percentage of 80% where the difference in their performance is not discernable and where all the individuals feel that they are equally good or bad. It is this group in private sector gets very stressed while being judged because most of the time factors other than pure professional play a part. Stakes are very high because of financial incentives that one is likely to get. In Government and academic world where no financial implications are involved for this large group the bad blood and stress is very little. It is ridiculous to get stressed because there is damn all you can do about your gradation. If somebody is able to manage his boss by massaging his ego and you can’t do it while feel upset. He has some quality which you don’t have. You are making up for it by delivering more than him.
    In Government and academic world where there are no direct financial benefits therefore stress is much less. What makes you perform is self motivation which according to my experience of life is real driving force and can get the best out of you. Competition has a tendency of becoming acrimonious. My view has been always I will do my best if someone does better than me good luck to him. I have never been handicapped by following this approach.
    We should realize that all performances are not measurable. I will narrate an incident from actual experience. At the time of UF government in Bengal in late 60s and early 70s there was total chaos in Railways as the Categorical Unions were becoming very active. The normal parameters by which the field officers were judged had all gone for toss and there was all-round deterioration. You know what was the yardstick for judging officers ‘things would be much worse but for him’. If he can survive in the field he is outstanding’?
    I have never understood or appreciated the stress arising out of how I am being judged. Who cares I have done my best leave balance to system. There may be some aberrations but by and large things work out in long run. There may be minor setback but overall no one can be kept back if one deserves.

  18. Naresh Saxena says:

    Dear Sir,

    The article is an interesting read. But I often wonder that how to evaluate meritocracy. Just by a rating system once in a year. Is that sufficient. Is it purely on the basis of performance. Does performance is also not subjected to several other factors beyond an individual’s competence and capabilities, like staffing, location,customer’s prior experience with the brand, and so on an so forth which might definitely need more than the routine effort of a senior. Are these properly taken into account while rating once in a year?

    Like I was reading and in agreement with Mr Anirudh Mithal’s views sic “The problem arises in judging the people who constitute the large percentage of 80% where the difference in their performance is not discernable and where all the individuals feel that they are equally good or bad. It is this group in private sector gets very stressed while being judged because most of the time factors other than pure professional play a part.”

    I agree with your examples of sports. But is there a level playing field for everyone in an organization like in sports. Can two branches given the same set of resources deliver exactly the same? will not external factors like location / intensity of competition, etc. It is where an employee feels cheated. While I understand that there could be no fool proof system but still can’t it be an average ratings of four quarters so that both the employees and employer know where they are heading. Nothings come’s as a surprise to any of them. I know the complexity of it, but the fairness of the system is enhanced.

    I know, I am no match to your acumen, your knowledge on the subject and your indepth understanding but quoting you in your own words ” that every person has an inalienable right to express his/her view no matter how different it is to anyone else” I felt like writing.

  19. Wonderful piece, written to induce the message that all corporate try to convey to its employees implicitly, i.e. ‘Perform or Perish’!

    But somewhere, my other view is – If indeed the best performers are the leaders year after year, then how come many of these companies get soaked in slime, dirt, nepotism, politics and corruption? Why do their stocks plummet? Why does the economic slowdown have to be triggered by some of these ‘endowed’ blue chips? Why do the decisions taken by the few on the top turn out to be disastrous for the company and end up impacting the bottom of the pyramid?

    Perhaps the argument in the favour of the Corporate is that like the Olympics, the yardsticks are specific. But, unlike Olympics, the winning story of a Corporate does not end with every season. Therefore, there is reason to believe that there is something more than the usual performance metrics that is supposed to be under trial – maybe we haven’t matured as much to be able to identify those.

    Perhaps, one day, the Corporate will have better measures in place so that the motto of ‘Faster, Higher, Stronger’ will apply to the consistent results achieved by the deserving companies through collective effort of the ‘truly best’. Perhaps that day, we will be able to look back and comment in the same manner, as we do now to former US President Ronald Reagon’s infamous statement in 1981, “Trees cause more pollution than automobiles do.”

  20. ralph gomes says:

    Respected sir,after going through your blog on mediocrity ,we at aimyoga would like to implement yoga lifestyle at icici bank centers,where we make employees aware where the heart ,head and hand of a corporation operates..the know how to progress in life through right desires,thought process and
    inputs ,we at aimyoga implement right postures for sitting at desk, excerises,team building ,positive responses, and the whole lifestyle intergration and integrity .

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About the Author

K Ramkumar, known to his friends as Ram, has an enduring passion for triggering a discussion and joining in with gusto on a range of themes. He believes that every person has an inalienable right to express his/her view no matter how different it is to anyone else. In his book no view is unworthy or big or small. Every view from everyone deserves a consideration without getting caught up with the tyranny of agreement or disagreement.
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