Merit

6

September 2016
Ivan Obolensky

Merit is defined as the quality of being particularly good or worthy. The original sense from Middle English was “deserved reward or punishment”.1 A meritocracy is a government or organizational system where those holding power or authority are selected for those positions based on ability alone.2

History shows that only a few have ever existed, but where they have, great things have followed. When viewed in the context of our modern world, it is worth considering.

The difficulty with a merit-based system, whether governmental or corporate, is that it is stark, implacable, and unforgiving. There is no compromise. Merit-based systems select only the best.

History says that implementing such a system is never easy. Prior to the modern era, meritocracy took root through either a widespread acceptance of a unique set of ideas (Confucianism), or through conquest (the Khanates of the Mongol Empire). In more modern times, meritocratic themes have been implemented primarily in the corporate sphere with some exceptions, but even corporations that have resolved to create such a system have had difficulties. The primary reason is bias.

Gapjumpers is a Silicon Valley startup that provides a technology platform for hiring by means of blind auditions. The blind auditions utilize challenges in the form of assignments. For instance, if one wanted to hire coders, then an assignment would be created that utilizes the specific coding language needed such as SQL, Java, C#, or Python.

The use of blind auditions does away with biased evaluations. In the case of the programming assignments, each is evaluated and ranked. There is no indication as to who the applicants are, only how well they did. The top performers are then interviewed by hiring managers.

Using this format, it was discovered that 60% of the most talented candidates came from underrepresented backgrounds, a surprising result.

For instance, it might be expected that the top performers would be newly minted graduates from top level universities who had interned at high performance companies and had prior experience in technology.

Underrepresented backgrounds in this instance would be those with backgrounds that had not yielded qualified applicants in the past, or were not proportionally represented percentage-wise in the current pool of employees.

In the above instance, those who were self-taught, had no formal education, or received online training would be selected out as not being qualified based on previous hiring regimens. Others excluded might be those who were old, young, or had disabilities. Another group might be those of a specific gender, ethnicity, or different country of origin.

In many cases, the expectation was that elite education, training, and experience would determine the top performers, and therefore the most qualified. This turned out not to be the case.

Bias, in one form or another, had pre-selected out a large percentage of the most qualified applicants.

Put another way, hiring based on resumes, word of mouth, and other nonperformance related criteria selected only 40% of the best and left the majority (60%) undiscovered.3

During the Golden Age of Athens, administrative positions were determined by lot. Of course, one had to be a citizen to qualify, but the pool of candidates was quite large. Even this system had a better chance of tapping into undiscovered talent simply from the fact that the best would be in the top 50%, 10% better than the 40% noted above.4

The first instance of meritocracy was in China. Confucius, around 600 BCE, originated the idea that those who govern should do so because of their merit rather than inherited status. Over time this led to the implementation of imperial examinations. Only those who passed were qualified for administrative positions. As government became more complex and sophisticated, the need for officials that actually knew what they were doing became vital. Civil service examination results and the necessary education to excel at them became key objectives for those seeking advancement in government. The idea that virtue and honesty trumped status from birth or patronage opened the door to periods of economic stability and expansion, which culminated in the Han dynasty (206 BCE – 200 CE), long considered a golden age in Chinese history.5

How this concept took root in India exactly is unknown, other than the concept of a civil service based on competitive examinations was implemented in the 18th century by the British East India Company, on account of the system’s success in China. This system deliberately closed off previous avenues of advancement and appointment due to favoritism and corruption, and was later used as a model in England and the rest of Europe.6

Perhaps the strictest form of meritocracy was instituted by one of history’s most controversial empires, that of the great Khans.

Genghis Khan founded the Mongol Empire during the beginning of the 13th century. At its height under Kublai, it stretched from the Pacific Ocean to the Mediterranean. In its conquest, it left no structures behind, only bridges. It created no technology, made no art, planted no crops, left nothing to mark its passing, yet nearly every territory the Mongols invaded experienced an unprecedented improvement in trade and communication between cultures, which resulted in a better civilization.

To the Europeans of the day, the culture of the Mongols was vilified. An indication of this attitude is found in the English word used to describe children with Down syndrome. They were derogatorily referred to as mongoloid until only recently. The vision of the Mongols as the greatest plague to mankind was spread by many European writers of the period. A cleric writing to the Archbishop of Bordeaux described them as “cannibals from Hell who eat the dead after battle and leave only bones…”.7 Such accounts conjured up visions in the populace of wholesale slaughter with mountains of skulls marking the cities that once housed thousands. This impression has persisted even today.

The facts are different. The Mongols fielded the most formidable military force on the planet at the time, but the size of the self-contained Mongol army that moved about Asia was never more than 100,000. Although supplemented by allied troops, the force was often a fraction of the size of the many armies they faced because they often divided their forces into smaller groups to strike several cities at once. They were master tacticians who specialized in the art of tactical withdrawal, stringing out opposing cavalry, and ambushing them at their leisure. It is no wonder those who were defeated exaggerated the numbers so that they appeared to be many times larger than they were and portrayed their adversaries in less than human terms.

How were they able to do so much with so little is a question that is worth asking. The answer is they wasted little.

The first act the invading Mongols performed once a city or territory was conquered was to get rid of the aristocracy. The Khans were always pragmatic and, based on experience, felt the nobility was far more trouble than they were worth. In Russia, the constant fighting between Princes created widespread and persistent hardships for the population. The Mongol invasion and subsequent destruction of the city of Kiev in 1240 CE put an end to it. The result was a new prosperity for a territory that stretched from the Black Sea to nearly Moscow to the North.8

Once the nobility was killed off, those left were examined as to who could read and write, as well as who had needed skills such as those of craftsmen, artists, metallurgists, traders, scholars, and doctors. Anyone with a useful specialty was spared provided they performed one act of fealty, an example of which might be feeding the army’s horses. This simple act when offered (not always) to those who were defeated and duly performed made them part of the Khanate and thus a protected agent who could not be killed or tortured.

With every conquest they opened the territory to trade and new ideas. Ultimately one of the greatest cross-fertilizations of cultures that has ever occurred took place. Peace and prosperity followed.

So widespread and dynamic was the exchange of ideas, the world was changed forever. Europe stopped wearing tunics and took to wearing pants and jackets. German mining techniques were introduced to China, while medicine from the Far East was utilized in Persia. The use of carpets became universal. Cannons became a viable weapon when gun powder was combined with European smelting technology. The Mongols created the ultimate in hybridization, and the result was universal improvement. Ironically, the ultimate winner in this massive intermingling of the world’s knowledge was Europe in spite of the abuses heaped upon the empire that made it possible. Europe profited as the technological innovations and ideas passed from the Middle East, through Italy and Eastern Europe into France and beyond. The Renaissance followed as knowledge flowed in a river from East to West along the Silk Road.

Much of Austria and the lands to the west of Germany were spared for two reasons: the first was that Mongol armies functioned best when not hemmed in by forests, and secondly, because scouting parties felt there was hardly anything worthwhile to conquer. Once the subjugated territory was stripped of the landed gentry, all that was left were serfs. Compared to the Far and Middle East, Europe was impoverished.

Religions were free to practice. There was no discrimination. Advancement was dependent on how well one did one’s job, and how useful you were. The empire they created was not based on status at birth, wealth, or patronage, but on performance. Because the men went out to battle, women took care of much of the day-to-day functioning of an empire that spanned most of Asia. There were several periods where a woman held the power of the Great Khan as regent.

Merit ruled and prosperity followed, but there was a downside. Those unlucky enough to be illiterate and with no useable skillsets were treated like nonentities. They were often used as filler and herded into the deep moats that surrounded the walled cities the armies besieged thereby serving some sort of useful purpose to the Mongols.

The Mongols were the ultimate globalists. Everywhere they went they created a higher level order from the chaos that came about through conquest. They instituted free trade, a single law code that spanned the entire empire, a universal alphabet that facilitated communication in all languages as well as universal literacy. They actively promoted commerce and trade. One’s origins did not matter. Even the Great Genghis Khan had been a slave.

Not all was merry under the Mongols. Family spats due to sibling rivalry at the highest levels of the Khanate caused turmoil and upset with international repercussions. Yet for all that, the empire functioned smoothly, prospered, and was for the most part bias-free when compared to the kingdoms and empires that followed. It was the law.9

Conquest was one way that meritocracy flourished, but it lasted for less than 200 years before factionalism and the rise of non-Mongol rulers eroded it, and the lessons were quickly forgotten.

Over the years that followed, performance-based advancement and qualification-based position assignment has been recognized as a valid way to foster growth and prevent disasters due to lack of skill, but implementation has been sketchy. Biases and prejudices exist today, perhaps not as much as in earlier times, but they are by no means extinct. Many supposed merit-based companies and governing bodies still show disparities in compensation, biased selection for advancement, and glass ceilings. Entry into elite universities is not based solely on merit. There are many examples of bias all around us. We are more aware of it, and organizations have taken steps in the form of compensation committees and hiring committees to cast a wider net in an effort to make sure the most talented are not overlooked, but the concept is not universally carried out with the necessary rigor.

On a much larger scale, to survive and prosper, humankind must utilize its best resources, and the best resources we have are found in the abilities, willingness, and efforts of those who comprise it. How many extraordinary individuals exist that have been passed over, or even deliberately blocked from either acceptance, or advancement? We do not know the answer, but what we do know is these individuals exist in large numbers based on the results of bias studies on corporate hiring.

One the key elements of a meritocracy is literacy and education. In the United States, there are 42 million Americans who hold high school diplomas, but who are functionally illiterate and cannot read. Another 50 million read at only the fourth or fifth grade level, and these numbers are rising at the rate of two million a year. Eighty percent of families in the US did not purchase a single book last year, even an electronic one.10

This fact alone says that a society based on merit functionally does not exist, at least in the United States. Couple that with universities that produce graduates with less than useful degrees, and it is close to a certainty.

We live in a time of intense polarization and division that has occurred only a few times before in history. What could possibly unify so fractured a society? In my opinion, merit can overcome the divisiveness of our age because no one can argue with ability. It is one point upon which we can all agree. We need to embrace it.


  1. (1991) Random House Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. New York, NY: Random House.
  2. (1991) Random House Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. New York, NY: Random House.
  3. Cooper, M. (December 1, 2015). The False Promise of Meritocracy, The Atlantic. Retrieved September 8, 2016 from http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2015/12/meritocracy/418074/.
  4. Durant, W., & Durant, A. (1939). The Story of Civilization Part II, The Life of Greece. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
  5. Durant, W. (1963) Our Oriental Heritage, The Story of Civilization Part I. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster
  6. Bodde, D. (2004) Chinese Ideas in the West, Asian Topics in World History, Asia for Educators. Retrieved September 8, 2016 from http://afe.easia.columbia.edu/chinawh/web/s10/ideas.pdf.
  7. Weatherford, J (2004). Genghis Kahn and the Making of the Modern World. New York, NY: Crown Publishing.
  8. Hosking, G. (2012) Russian History, A Very Short Introduction. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
  9. Weatherford, cit.
  10. Hedges, C. (2016) America the Illiterate, Retrieved September 8, 2016 from http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/20081110_america_the_illiterate.

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© 2016 Ivan Obolensky. All rights reserved. No part of this publication can be reproduced without the written permission from the author.

  1. Craig Houchin
    Craig Houchin09-14-2016

    Meritocracy in the U.S. would be a grand experiment. We just need to get over the first hurdle — the fact that the people currently in place to implement such a system would probably the first victims of such a system once it got functioning. Ha! Catch-22.

    Fun article, and food for thought. Thanks.

    craig

    • Ivan
      Ivan09-22-2016

      That has probably been the problem all along and the reason that it either has taken conquest or a widespread change in thinking to precipitate the necessary changes. I would posit a major event took place just before, that awoke the population to the need for change, particularly in the segment of the population from which potential leaders rose to power. Meritocratic thinking is rare. It happened in Athens with Solon who was given authority to make the necessary changes when Athens was on the brink. Coincidentally, this occurred in the same time period of Confucius, Siddhartha, Zoroaster, and others. The German philosopher Karl Jaspers coined the term the Axial or Axis Age. He described it as “an interregnum between two ages of great empire, a pause for liberty, a deep breath bringing the most lucid consciousness…” Some believe it was the rise of the urban environment at the time that necessitated a large number of philosophical leaders across diverse and distant cultures.

  2. Silvia
    Silvia09-16-2016

    Makes total sense. Mexico is a perfect example of ‘get a position based on connections alone’ independently of the ability, or lack of, of the new employee.
    The result of many years of ‘do as little as possible with a fat cheque’ has led Mexico into a bureaucracy where governors, presidents, senators and so forth do not care to serve their country, far less have any ability to create positive changes.
    This is a culture that has been going on probably since the Spaniards invaded Mexico.
    Result: poverty, stolen millions by governors or presidents and a society that tries to evade any gubernamental imposed rules as no benefit will be received at the other end.
    Merit, and definitely professionalism, are non-existent in the Mexican culture.

    Great article Ivan, thank you

    • Ivan
      Ivan09-22-2016

      You are welcome. Who you know (cronyism) has always been an obstacle to merit.

  3. Georgette Blanchard
    Georgette Blanchard09-22-2016

    Loved it, loved it! As a woman who has, of course, faced discrimination (not to mention quite small and too young looking which is considered a “handicap” in many selections), I can’t but agree. If we were using merit more often, and more regularly, the world would be a better place. But politics (in organizations and in the world) often takes the place of good choices.

    BTW, years ago (30 or so), the new chief of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, Charles Dutoit instituted blind choosing of musicians. Everybody was behind a curtain and nobody could see what or who they were… lo and behold, suddenly, the orchestra had a lot more women!! and the orchestra went on to win so many prizes that it had not done before. Coincidence? I think not. Merit should be a big factor in choosing anyone for jobs or promotions or any kind of opening or recognition.

    • Ivan
      Ivan09-22-2016

      I absolutely agree. I have several Montreal Symphony recordings. Merit is so obvious
      yet so hard to implement because it comes up against the fixed ideas, vested interests,
      and patronizing that has been the way to the top for some time. We have improved,
      but I think we have slid backwards in recent years. Change is coming, however.

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