A Gracious Meritocracy
A note on performance management and redemption
Good morning. This is working theology.
In the September issue of The Atlantic, Daniel Markovits, professor of law at Yale, makes the case that our meritocratic culture was supposed to be a cure for nepotism and economic inequality.
Alumni had long believed that their sons had a birthright to follow them to Yale; now prospective students would gain admission based on achievement rather than breeding. Meritocracy—for a time—replaced complacent insiders with talented and hardworking outsiders.
Today’s meritocrats still claim to get ahead through talent and effort, using means open to anyone. In practice, however, meritocracy now excludes everyone outside of a narrow elite.
He goes on to show how this elitism fuels a culture of competition, which is “crippling the American dream.”
Similarly, earlier this year the New York Times Magazine released a series on the future of work. One essay called “Wealthy, Successful and Miserable” described how these elite professionals are depressed, despite making $1.2 million per year at investment banks or tech hubs. “I feel like I’m wasting my life,” they say.
Some writers put the problem of meritocracy on our obsession with hustle culture in WeWork offices, or increased globalization, or advances in automation. Even Jack Welch, legendary CEO of GE, said of meritocratic performance that “you don’t see the .180 hitter getting all the money.”
It makes sense.
Good performance creates value.
Performance is the measure of a successful business. From this weekend’s note, we learned about value creation, that “real economic success is about how much value you create, not how much money you make.” It’s the cornerstone of corporate finance.
The obsession with performance, however, has consequences. The pressure can lead to anxiety, depression, and burnout. One survey from 2016 found that 40% of respondents say they suffered from burnout.
So, if your business and professional career are based on performance and value creation, what happens when you fail? In other words, what happens in your career when you’re not creating value? Neutron Jack would say you’re outta there. It’s not personal. It’s just business.
However, humanity complicates meritocracy. Sometimes we just suck.
Some companies are working to make performance management, as the HR community calls it, more gracious.
One of my clients told the story of how their software can track employee performance through pulse surveys—short, frequent questions asking how they’re doing—rather than annual performance reviews. With this data employers can see that, say, when an engineer is struggling through a rough patch, it’s only a rough patch; for the six months prior the engineer was doing just fine. This historical insight saved the engineer’s job.
Grace creates another value.
Technology like that can help make our workplaces better in some small way.
Yet organizational leaders can also think through performance management with theology. In Christian theology, for example, grace is one of its preeminent themes. While mercy withholds the condemnation you deserve, grace gives a blessing when it’s undeserved.
We all make mistakes. We all have rough patches, some lasting months or years. We fail, and suffer from depression, anxiety, fear, or sickness.
Grace says you deserve another chance. It says you’re worthy, despite your lack of performance. A little grace can inspire hope and creativity, allowing others to fail and get back up again.
Our culture doesn’t have a vocabulary for redemption. But it’s time we bring mercy, grace, and redemption into our workplaces. Think about how extending grace can turn around your employees’ fate, and give them hope.
Allow yourself—and others—to fail. It’ll be okay.