Bias, Meritocracy, and Human Nature

This month I was challenged by Emma Lindley’s webinar on “Bias, Blind Spots and Bad ID Systems” to consider how bias – a fundamental pattern of how humans think – impacts my world. It inspired me to search out additional information and to really think about how my bias affects my interactions with the world around me.

Then I read another article that stomped on one of my hot buttons regarding the realities of so-called meritocracies. I’ve worked with several organizations that consider themselves functional meritocracies, and are dang proud of that fact. Meritocracy as a positive model is pervasive in the tech industry as a whole. The reality, however, is that the comfort of “anyone can succeed purely by their merit” has enabled some of the worst of human behaviors. 

“[T]his ‘paradox of meritocracy’ occurs because explicitly adopting meritocracy as a value convinces subjects of their own moral bona fides. Satisfied that they are just, they become less inclined to examine their own behaviour for signs of prejudice.”

Clifton Mark, A belief in meritocracy is not only false: it’s bad for you, Aeon

I have observed this behavior so many times. It often takes the form of a train of thought that appears to go something like this: I am an expert in this field. I don’t know you. You are not an expert in my field. Therefore, I don’t have to listen to you about anything, for I have more merit than you.

People have different experiences, skill levels, and gifts. Their knowledge and skills may not be obviously applicable to a specific area of expertise. But allowing for their inclusion helps fill in the blanks. I’ll give you a ‘for instance.’ I was in a meeting to represent the publication process for an organization. During a break, someone asked me about which of the two models of IPv6 should be advanced in the world. As if I had any knowledge whatsoever about the details of IPv6 (no, sorry, no direct knowledge at all). What I did have was an awareness of the challenges of regional networks in Africa. I said, “Well, what I’d do is send representatives from both sides of that argument to Africa and see which model actually worked in that kind of environment. Whatever the solution turns out to be must take into account more than just first-world network architecture.” The gentleman I was talking to took that as some profound advice. I added value, and he was willing to listen, despite my lack of expertise in his space. That’s what organizations need to foster – supporting the truth that different perspectives have their own, equal merit.

I want meritocracy to be a viable thing. It is so elegant. It offers a promise that hard work and creative thinking will be rewarded. But the human factor, the fact that people are not as rational and unbiased as they would like to think, makes the reliance on meritocracy as a guiding principle for the tech industry makes for organizations that will ultimately drive away the diversity and skills that they need to succeed.

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