Director’s Cut: How Come?

There is no single yardstick of goodness, so let’s stop trying to be “merit-based.”

Photo by Diana Polekhina on Unsplash

Last week, you wrote to a Highly Sensitive Person and effectively said, they should find the people and places that celebrate them, not suffocates them. But I wonder if that applies to every type of team. I can see why I might want my HR team to have an HSP-type, but I wouldn’t want that in the financial part of the business, on the team that ensures sure the quarter closes accuracy, and with precision. Can’t we just focus on and reward the outcomes, and build a merit-based organization instead of handing out hugs for everyone. 

Hey there, Merited

You’re missing out because an emotive accountant might just save your ass. 

The experience I’m thinking of involves an account standing just 5’ tall, someone you’d find standing in the back of a room, instead of taking a seat. Only answering questions when asked because she saw herself (in her own words) as “an order taker”, not a “maker”. Yet, she knew the entire sales team better than anyone else in finance. Not due to her job, which was mid-level, but because she was married to a gregarious guy who worked with the Channel teams. He was also a not-so-secret pot-head, who often had parties in his hotel room. 

Anyhoo, after many years of spouse-included customer or regional events, this quiet, reserved accountant was emotionally bonded with just about everyone in the field. 

It’s exactly why she was the first who learned that some of the sales execs were, um, creatively striking biz deals. Where x stuff was sold, but somewhere in the size-9-type-point contract language, the T&Cs were just slightly “tuned” so that future versions of the product(s) would be included, gratis. An issue for revenue recognition. 

First off, she only learned it because of emotional bonds. Second, if had limited her response to what she was measured by, she could have let the company file erroneous data to Wall Street. 

She likely saved her boss’s job, the CEO’s job, AND the company’s stock price. Not by doing “her job” as defined, nor by any metrics she was measured by. 

But by her onlyness


To see everyone’s capacities so you can enable them to contribute their whole self? That’s not hugs and kisses, dude. It’s leadership that centers on the actual source of value creation. 

Yet, I get your tension. Far too often, we leaders are asked to manage by outcomes, KPI’s, on things we can pre-define, specify. 

You are likely asked to divide big tasks into smaller bits to manage individual accountability when collaboration is the secret to turning nascent ideas into outcomes. How come? 

You are likely asked to manage productivity, tracking the hours spent on things, instead of tending and cultivating the trust you need for teams to take risks, learn, grow. How come? 

You are likely asked to manage the business with efficiency, in routines like annual KPI-driven performance reviews … instead of being relational, to tap people’s boundless capacities. How come? 

I’ve spent over 25 years in business doing innovation, trying to understand this question of how come. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s this truth: all great work is an act of co-creation. When big outcomes happen, it is never due to just one person but is always, always a story of us. How many people first creatively shape a nascent fledgling idea into a robust considered one. How many people then put their energy towards it. So that, together, a shared commitment creates a new reality. What matters is what comes from onlyness: Creativity. Perspective. Energy. Drive. Value Creation. 

Equally, I’ve rarely in all these years (and incredibly tough situations) seen something fail because one amongst us just isn’t doing their assigned bit. Things fail mostly from the unnamed things, the gap between our different “boxes”. The way someone is asked to “focus on their piece” instead of us owning the whole and bringing our fullness to it. 

We are all miserable at work when we’re measured in ways that fundamentally limit (rather than liberates) the work of value creation. Leaders are asked to manage and measure their people as costs, to control them, to direct them. And why good leader knows they need to unleash each person’s capacity, aligning them to get them to become each others’ multiplier. 

We clearly need better metrics. 

But until then, it explains why you can’t get to success by just “focusing on outcomes”. 


Now you raise an even more strategic question, why can’t we just be “merit-based”, so we can have and use clear and explicit rules to hire, assign responsibilities, and measure results.

What you’re describing is Meritocracy. An idea that says….

  • That the reason people get into top-tier schools is that they are “the best.” 
  • That the reason they got hired was that they are “the best.”
  • That the reason they got promoted is that they “did the best work”. 
  • That the reason someone is in charge is that they “earned it.” 
  • That standard measures and tests indicate someone’s true capacity. 

If you look at that list and nod up and down, know that you’re in the majority. It’s widely held up as an ideal, 75% of Americans believe in it. 

But let me share some facts that challenge if meritocracy is legit. 

  • First and perhaps the most shocking to share is how The University of Texas first created standardized testing to limit access to Black people. UofT called it “meritocracy” as a socially acceptable alternative to what the Civil Rights Bill had just ended, racial segregation. Given that standardized tests act as a feeder system to higher education and later the networks of who gets hired where we can see how this rewards anti-Blackness and not actual merit. 
  • And sadly, people do not get promoted based on doing the best work. Women, ethnic minorities, and non-U.S.-born employees regularly receive a much smaller increase in compensation compared with the demographics of white men, despite holding the same jobs, working in the same units, having the same supervisors, the same human capital, and importantly, receiving the same performance score.  If you’ve not already read Minda Harts’ work, The Memo, one thing she taught me is how Black women are the singularly most educated group there is but still the least paid
  • And just more broadly about “the best:” Reputation is influenced by networks, not capabilities. You might remember how Y Combinator’s Paul Graham told the NYT: ‘I can be tricked by anyone who looks like Mark Zuckerberg. There was a guy once who we funded who was terrible. I said How could he be bad? He looks like Zuckerberg!” The research consistently says that … each of the criteria you might use to index how to hire or promote support– credentials, social connections, and track record —  are already known to be affected by gender (and racial) bias.

I could go on, but the links above are indicative of the fuller research. It explains so much. Why we’re in such misery. If 75% believe things that keep them down, it’s no wonder “hopelessness got some by the throat you can see it in their eyes.” But if you want more, read meritocracy is a false promise; it’s a great piece my friend, sociologist Marianne Cooper wrote. 


So, Merited, despite sounding so positive, focusing on “outcomes” and “merit” is often harmful, making work a kind of tyranny. People internalize their lack of measuring up against archaic and artificial yardsticks and think they must lack the talent or drive to do so. Which is rarely, if ever, the case. And why I gave Sensitive One the advice I did. To find the places and people who celebrate her, instead of seeing herself as somehow flawed simply because she is herself. 

I know this advice is not what’s taught or told. But when we hear ideas that flatten humans into “resources to be managed”, we’ve flattened our colleagues and teammates into 2d constructs.  This alone is a clue that it will not work. 

The truth is, we can’t reduce any person’s value to a single letter or number on a scale of merit. As if there is one “good” scale. One yardstick. Or one standard that ought to be used. 

Instead, we must see each person and what value they bring. Because when someone is valued, that person gets to add their value. Which will always save our collective ass. 

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