How Should We Measure Merit on Employee Surveys Amidst Shifting Paradigms?

We are all products of both our environment and our abilities. Part of the American myth is the notion that anyone can succeed and improve their circumstances through hard work, yet much of this has been debunked by scholars who point to systemic racism, poverty, and other societal issues that greatly affect one’s potential along with natural ability. In fact, it has been shown that upward mobility in American society is actually less than in other western societies. Yet a merit-based rationale is how those who are successful justify the rewards that society offers up to them, and much of how we measure success focuses on merit.

Evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould nails down this idea with his famous quote, “I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.” He is explicitly stating that due to environmental factors great talents are often not recognized, nurtured, and allowed to blossom.

In our research, we found that when you compare job satisfaction to workload, those who had “too much” work to do were considerably more positive than those who had “too little” work. Those with too much work felt more “valued” by the organization than those with too little work. And in company after company one of the findings we come across is that the reward for doing a good job is having more work assigned to you.

If success has to do with both merit and opportunity, are those of us crafting employee surveys asking the wrong questions? Perhaps we should be asking more questions about people feeling valued, both at a personal level and organizational level. If everyone in the organization felt similarly valued, regardless of their position, would this be one way to bring the population more together? Would this have more of a positive effect than measuring something like promotions, rewards, and other opportunities that are based on merit? For instance, a common item is: “Promotions here are based on merit and not on who you know.” This can be interpreted as those who did not get promotions are without merit, creating a disenfranchised underclass in the organization. Is that really our goal? What if we more commonly asked: “I feel that [my company] greatly values my contribution to the organization,” or “People in jobs like mine are valued by the organization”?

Today our society is deeply divided. There are many fault lines that contribute to that divide, but one of them is how we have defined merit and justify rewards using merit. In many respects the populism that swept the world recently is a revolt against merit. Or, more precisely, against a society of supposed merit that is actually viewed as being stacked in favor of certain advantaged groups. The recent manipulation of the GameStop stock price could be viewed in the same light; it was a rage against the machine moment. Those who are less successful are repeatedly told that their lack of success is their own fault, due to a lack of ability, when it may be due to a lack of opportunity. Individual differences in ability certainly exist, but do we overplay the merit angle when it comes to success?

What are your thoughts? Drop me a line to share your thoughts.


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