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What does meritocracy mean and what are the myths and truths about this system?

Understand how you can apply fair and innovative meritocracy in your company!

Meritocracy – An illustration of 3 vertical bars in different sizes and a trophy above the highest bar.

Meritocracy is a reward system for individual merit. In other words, when the criterion to grant a certain award or advantage is exclusively due to the person’s efforts and dedication.

This system is widely disseminated nowadays and is used by several institutions and organizations. For example, by the government when hiring people by means of public service entry examinations, and by companies in order to acknowledge employees.

Overall, meritocracy is a controversial issue, given the criticism it receives. 

This happens because, although this principle is a recognized representation of justice in modern western societies, certain scholars argue that in order to achieve certain things, people don’t rely solely on individual effort.

Critics argue that there are subjective and complex issues that may influence the outcome. Basically, depending on luck, i.e., matters out of our control.

One example is when 2 people from different family and socio-economic backgrounds try to get into a university, and where meritocracy is the only criterion of the selection process.

Imagine that the first person had access to quality education and family support, while the second person didn’t and couldn’t go to school every day. The latter had to help their family by getting a job while going to school.

For critics, the process won’t be as fair in this case.

Specific cases such as this one support the questioning of the meritocratic model’s effectiveness. However, we cannot generalize the criticism to all cases.

The meritocracy system can be well utilized, especially when the economic means and backgrounds of those participating in the process are practically the same.

Good use of meritocracy is the basis for promotions and bonuses, within the corporate environment, but also to encourage employee productivity.

In this article, you’ll learn how to apply meritocracy in the workplace in a fair manner. But first, let’s understand the main myths and truths of this system. Keep reading!

Myths and truths about meritocracy

As you have already noticed, there are several issues to be considered regarding meritocracy.

We provide a few of these issues so we can reflect on them together. Check them out below!


Meritocracy is always fair

As we explained above, certain scholars argue that meritocracy, as a sole criterion, is not always fair for rewarding purposes.

This myth can also be supported by several studies. Robert H. Frank (professor, New York Times columnist and author of Success and Luck – Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy) is one of the scholars who has spoken on this subject.

Frank has said that “[…] several studies prove that most success stories, especially of huge success, were favored by luck, i.e., by external factors regardless of each person’s talent or efforts.”

Moreover, other evidence is proof, especially in more unequal countries, that along with fortuity, the difference in opportunities makes meritocracy privilege few people.

It’s possible to apply meritocracy in all cases

There’s no question that meritocracy has created fairer processes over time. The job market is an example that this system has contributed to reducing race and gender discrimination, for example.

However, this premise doesn’t work in all cases. In order for meritocracy to be applied in an ideal scenario, there must be at least one common “starting point” among competitors.

Observe this image:

meritocracy - 2 illustrations representing the difference between between equality and equity.

It represents a metaphor to explain the difference between equality and equity. We can create this relationship with meritocracy also, since its principle is to a fair system.

In the situation on the left, the spectators in the game, although of different heights, receive the same box to stand on and watch the game. But the wall still prevents the shortest person from watching.

On the right, the shortest person gets two boxes, the person in the middle gets one box and the tallest person, who didn’t need one, doesn’t get a box. This way, everyone has the same chance of watching the game.

In other words, in this case, since their unequal situation was adjusted, they are on “equal footing”. On this basis, a meritocracy process could work well.

In companies, it can be applied by establishing clear equitable criteria avoiding privileges, so that the system can work in a fair and efficient manner.


The meritocracy system is an advance over more unequal models

We know that, in the past, hierarchical positions were defined much more by heredity, class, family, and factors that did not depend on the individual, but rather on the circumstances in which this individual was inserted.

With the rise of meritocracy, the opportunities of choices and recognition for one’s efforts, regardless of people’s backgrounds, opened several doors to keep determinism from defining the future of individuals.

In addition, nowadays merit is an important criterion for the proper operation of several processes and for the distribution of resources.

Although we are far from the ideal situation, positive results can be observed especially in private organizations, where a well-defined and fair system can be created.

Meritocracy works as a motivator in companies

It’s a fact that one of the main benefits that rewards based on merit have provided, is the productive force it generates for companies.

Not only this, but also because it’s good for employees, because they understand that their efforts will be rewarded. Therefore, meritocracy is an important motivator at work.

By creating competitiveness, companies can take advantage of the meritocracy system to offer opportunities, such as promotions, bonuses, productivity awards, etc.

In order to apply meritocracy fairly, a clear and measurable process needs to be created

Just to remember one of the myths: Meritocracy isn’t always fair. But private organizations have the chance of applying this system fairly.

All that is needed is the creation of equal opportunities for everyone, considering the difference and a common “starting point” for the competitors. 

In addition, it is necessary to plan and be clear about the criteria and forms of evaluation, which are measurable and not subjective.

You are probably wondering, “Wow, but this seems hard to implement!”

Relax, I’ll explain how to implement meritocracy in an innovative manner. Keep reading!

Meritocracy in the workplace

Now that you understand the entire discussion around meritocracy and know that you can implement it fairly, check out what you need to do so!

How to apply meritocracy fairly in your company

The first step is to understand the implications of meritocracy and the external factors will always exist to interfere with the proper operation of the system. You are already familiar with this part, so let’s skip to the next one!

In order to propose a suitable process, start outlining in which situation meritocracy will be applied. Answer questions, such as:

  1. What will the criteria be?
  2. Who will participate in the process? Are these people starting from a common point? If not, what can be done to reduce inequalities and provide the same opportunities for everyone?
  3. What is its purpose?
  4. What will be evaluated?
  5. Is there anything to be considered in addition to individual efforts? If so, how will this influence it?
  6. What is the goal? 
  7. What will the reward be?

After your planning is done, a notice or any other document should be drafted, depending on the situation, to be disclosed to all competitors. Thus, they can follow and identify their own performance throughout the process.

This way, there will be more transparency and everyone will be able to put their best efforts forward, since they’ll be informed about what is expected by the company.

Another point is monitoring. For example, in order to reward someone with a promotion, in a job and salary plan, after disclosing the document with the criteria and other definitions, leaders should always be monitoring their employees.

This monitoring must include feedback that reflects how someone’s career is developing. Strengths and weaknesses can be presented, as well as guidelines for the improvement of points needed to achieve what is expected.

If the intention is to use meritocracy for hiring, it is also important to think about the organization’s context. In order to create a fair process, it’s important to know that a good working environment has a diversity of people and ideas.

In other words, while planning the process, consider retaining a plurality of talents, creating forms of including those with characteristics lacking in the workplace, in order to have a more efficient and productive business.

There are many advantages. If you wish to learn them all and apply an increasingly fairer meritocracy, read our post explaining why diversity in the workplace is important.