The Meritocracy Myth

“This company runs as a meritocracy, do you know what that is?” he asked.

I was 24 years old, in a job interview, and had never heard the term before. It was explained to me: it means that achievement is the basis of opportunity. In order to get the best account assignment, projects, and promotions you simply needed to be the top achiever. 

To be honest, I left with stars in my eyes. One of my core personal values is fairness – and this was incorporated it into the way the company functioned. There was a word for what I believed in and wanted to experience.

Meritocracy: a system in which the talented are chosen and moved ahead on the basis of their achievement.

Merriam Webster

What I didn’t expect was the complicated relationship I would develop with the concept over the next decade, and how disillusioned I would become by it.

And I definitely didn’t expect that I would come to realize it is one of the biggest obstacles for talented professionals to succeed in their career.

There is research and data that shows the inequalities that exist: the pay gap that lingers, sexism is alive and well even in supposedly progressive industries like tech, nearly half of women have faced discrimination at work and have even held themselves back from applying for a promotion because of it, and incompetent men are promoted over professionals who are qualified and deserving.

Yet while we accept that inequalities exist, we clutch to the ideals of fairness. We operate under the standards of meritocracy – even when meritocracies don’t exist.

No one had bad intentions when they told you that the path to success was working hard to get results. Our conscious minds want the world, and the companies we work in, to be equitable. If you’re like me you believe that we can co-create the reality, we just need to dismantle the glass ceiling and create the just world we want to live in first.

But we can’t do that by obeying the rules as they are – those rules were not designed for you to succeed. To create the success you want, what you need is the four new rules to accelerate your career.

Rule # 1 – Working harder is not the answer

One of the most persistent and entrenched myths that holds women back is that hard work will get them ahead. If that was true, why can you probably name at least one slacker with a questionable amount of talent who got promoted when you didn’t?

When I ask ambitious professionals to tell me how they’re working harder the answer is unanimous: they are working more hours. But here’s the catch, working more makes you less productive. On average, the women I speak with are working 60 hours a week. The data shows us that any effort of about 55 hours is most likely spinning your wheels without any result. 

This is one of the reasons why when I have my clients cut back the number of hours they are putting in they start getting recognition and promotions. 

You don’t need to work more, you need to be more strategic in what you do at work. Having 20 high impact hours per week will take you much further in your career than 60 hours of typical output. Which leads me to the second rule…

Rule # 2 – Stop Overachieving on Everything

I’m talking to you my Type A friends, because you are trying to prove your talent and potential using a main principle of meritocracy: by overachieving on everything that you do. 

Women are more likely than men to describe themselves as perfectionists, and this isn’t just on Instagram, it’s showing up at work as well. Many of the women I work with have a solid track record of excellence in everything they do. But too many times, they’re overachieving on the things that won’t get them noticed, let alone promoted. In fact, the fact they have overachieving may be what is holding them back

You need to invest your effort and attention only on the things that truly matter. Generally, this means identifying the biggest impact you can make that aligns with the priorities of your team and your company.

Rule # 3 – Learn the Art of Saying No

Women are more likely to be asked to do the office housework, which tends to be thankless work that is undervalued.

Think about it: have you been asked to take notes during a meeting, tidy up the conference room or prepare it for a meeting, plan the client dinner, or even to do the dishes in the shared kitchen when no male colleague is being asked?  These are the tasks you need to start saying no to – they take you away from the impact you can make.

Beyond that, you also need to learn how to say no to bad ideas, requests for your assistance that you don’t have the bandwidth to support, and much more. When every request is met with a ‘yes’ you will overcommit yourself and lose focus on the work that will get you noticed. 

Saying no is too often perceived as a bad thing – it can be a fast way to make your colleagues dislike you. But it doesn’t have to be that way. You can say no in a way that actually makes people thank you, opens the door for new opportunities, and ultimately helps you earn recognition.

Rule # 4 – Success is Not Solitary

Women don’t ask for help at work.  Under the rules of meritocracy, success is an individual achievement. In order to get ahead, your accomplishments can only be attributed to you.

This misconception could not be more misguided.

If it was true, then we wouldn’t need mentors and sponsors, and they definitely wouldn’t be so sought after that some professional are cold emailing people and asking for this support. 

Focusing on mentors and sponsors is not telling the full story, because the women and men who have reached the highest levels of the career ladder, including Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Mayer, have gotten where they are and stayed at the top in part because they worked with an Executive Coach.

If you’re early to mid-stage in your career working with an Executive Coach would be overkill. However, a Success Coach can help you accelerate your career and help you build an effective foundation for growth. They will help you discover what you really want in your career, help with the strategies to reach your professional goals, and help you be the only and obvious choice for every opportunity you want as you ascend the career ladder.

Your Opportunity

Implementing the rules is not complicated; in fact, making progress in one will automatically impact the others because they are interconnected. The most challenging step is letting go of the ideal of the meritocracy and the misguided lessons you have learned over your lifetime.  Even when you know that conventional wisdom is wrong, following the old rules feels safer.

But the new rules present each of us with an opportunity to grow our power and influence in our careers. It is with this power and influence that we will be able to create the fair workplaces we want so badly.