Thursday, February 10, 2011

Meritocracy vs. Cronyism: Coaching the Meritocrat

Most of us would prefer to work in a meritocracy – a place where one is successful because of their talent and ideas are accepted based on their merit.  Realistically, however, the world is not always conducted this way.  People are hired and promoted based on who they know, or as in the case of former US Ambassador Cynthia Stroum, how much money they donate to a political campaign.

Cynthia Stroum, a Seattle philanthropist and investor, was awarded her post as US Ambassador to Luxembourg based on the fact that she raised over $500,000 for Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign.  The fact that the President awarded the ambassadorship based on her favorable connections and wealth is not and was never a point of contention. Only 3 of the past 21 ambassadors to Luxembourg have been career diplomats.  Offering an ambassadorship to rich, loyal backers is an accepted practice in the United States.
Cronyism, the opposite of meritocracy, exists everywhere, not just in the highest levels of the US government.  In business, it may be referred to as “the old boys club”.  The emphasis on networking to obtain jobs and key positions acknowledges the fact that who you know can play an equal, and sometimes greater, part in your success than what you know and what you’ve accomplished.
All workplaces are a combination of meritocracy and cronyism, and from what I have seen in my work with a variety of organizations, the emphasis is usually on the side of meritocracy.   Having connections does grease the opening door, and it can be a deciding factor when determining who to hire given a  slew of candidates with similar talents.   But if someone cannot perform up to expected standards,  they usually don’t keep their position, whether or not they have wealth or connections.  Ambassador Stroum turned out to be a power abuser, and recently resigned from her position after an in-depth investigation of her leadership practices.  When diplomats request re-assignment to Iraq and Afghanistan from Luxembourg, it’s one strong indication of poor leadership. 
Beyond getting hired or promoted, maintaining good relationships are essential for getting projects approved and ideas accepted.  Most of us recognize that in order to be effective within an organizational culture we must do a certain amount of strategic networking.  However, a meritocrat does not acknowledge the fact that connections and relationships may come into play.   Meritocrats firmly believe that everyone and everything should be judged solely on their merits.  When their newest great idea gets shot down, they are outraged, affronted or confused.  Life is unfair in their eyes.  Obviously their idea was overlooked by short-sighted, clueless egotists.
Meritocrats, according to James Waldroop and Timothy Butler in their book  The 12 Bad Habits that Hold Good People Back,  are often those who scored well on standardized tests growing up.  They were rewarded for their hard work and intelligence, and expect that obvious exchange to continue throughout their lives. 
If you have a meritocrat on your team (or if you are one)  be aware of how destructive  this can be to their career, and how much it can not only limit their success, but their team’s success.  They may have excellent ideas that will never truly get off the ground unless they learn how to involve others.  Most meritocrats are hard-working, smart employees who want to contribute to the organization.  They need help to do that effectively, and before they self-sabotage.
Another way to look at it is that they haven’t grasped the nuances of their organizational culture.  They need guidance to understand how to get things done and as in any culture, the balance of merit and relationships needs to be taken into account.
As a manager of a meritocrat, coaching is required.  First of all they need to know that you empathize with their position.  Unless they hear something like “It does seem unfair.  Your idea is excellent, and it is a shame others don’t recognize it’s value”, they will not be open to hearing what you have to say next.
And what you say next is critical to them understanding that just having and communicating an excellent idea is not enough.  Do they want to be right, or do they want to be effective?  Do they want to get their own way or do they want to be successful in their project?  Naturally, we all want both, but that is not an option here. 
With questions, move the meritocrat from blaming and righteous indignation to generating ideas to dissolve their roadblocks.  Discuss what and who the obstacles are, and who needs to be involved.  What are the points that can be compromised on and how can the key decision makers be drawn in? 
Once you’ve pulled them into a solution orientation and they are started on an action plan, they will need reinforcement to stay on course.  They are meritocrats so they will fall back on their righteousness again.  Be sure you are there to remind them that what also has merit is rewarding loyalty, friendship and support.  And although that may look like “cronyism”, it is a fact of life. 

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