Why Your Meritocracy Isn’t Working.

Jake Wilder
4 min readApr 24, 2022

Internal Competition Drives Toxic Behaviors

iStock/grinvalds

The idea of a workplace meritocracy sounds great. If you perform, you succeed. Privilege and politics don’t factor into the equation. The hardest workers and best performers get ahead while those less dedicated do not.

In theory, meritocracies work well. Reality, however, is a different story.

I used to work with a company that prized itself on being a meritocracy. The best ideas won, and you got there through rigorous debate. Results were the top priority, and you didn’t let bureaucratic processes hold you back from making progress. If you wanted to advance, you needed to develop new ideas and demonstrate your contribution. Those who couldn’t do this found themselves sidelined or out of a job.

It’s easy to see the positives. Everyone knew the expectations. Performance drove advancement. The best ideas and the hardest workers triumphed.

The meritocracy was a success. Until, of course, it wasn’t.

Consider the process of developing new ideas. Meetings were a battleground to advance your project and kill anything that might compete with it. Resources for someone else, by definition, meant less for you. In that zero-sum mindset, support and encouragement were nonexistent. All that mattered was selling your agenda.

The ideas that moved forward were rarely the best, but those with the loudest talking advocates. If you preferred to think deeply over a subject before discussing it, there wasn’t a place for you. If you weren’t comfortable aggressively debating your idea, then you were out of luck. There are few better ways to marginalize a large portion of a company.

When results always take priority, people, by definition will not. It became acceptable, even admirable, to run over others as long as it was in the pursuit of progress. This worked for hard-charging Type A managers, but it led to a lot of people repeatedly getting stepped on. Eventually, people got sick of being treated so poorly and either disengaged or left the company altogether.

Meritocracies thrive on internal competition. The way to advance is to develop your own idea, implement it, and broadcast the benefit. All of the incentives push these behaviors…

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Jake Wilder

I don’t know where I’m going. But at least I know how to get there.