Do you think you work in a meritocracy?

image I’ve worked in places that are pretty obviously not a meritocracy but my more recent jobs at least try and even though I’d rather be in an actual meritocracy, I appreciate those who try.

I remember that a while back I was working someplace where I felt appreciated and like people saw my work, only to find out that they saw some of my work and appreciated that. I later realized they saw only the part of my work they expected to see and everything beyond that was invisible even though it was right in front of their faces.

My boss in that place wasn’t sexist, either. It’s so much worse with bosses that are. He just didn’t have the ability to see what all ten of us did all the time. How could I expect him to? And yet many of us do expect our bosses to notice these things without us actually saying anything. This phenomenon, first noticed in a detrimental way toward women was thus given a rather girly name, Tiara Syndrome . I’ve written about it before and it was a definite problem for me. How about you?

When I realized that my boss didn’t know everything that any of us were doing, it made me realize two other things. First, he tried but was not omnipotent. Second, we shouldn’t treat him like he was or make anyone feel bad about not noticing every single thing we do.

The thing that made him notice my accomplishments was the first stage in the yearly evaluations we did at that job. That also meant that if I had done a bad job writing about what I’d done to be evaluated, he still wouldn’t have noticed. He also wouldn’t have noticed the work of any of the rest of my coworkers that did a poor job writing up their accomplishments. It also made me appreciate that I was at a place where I wrote down my accomplishments myself, where they can be seen at the end of the year by the people who made promotions happen, even if they weren’t in a constant state of awareness about them. It’s better than being evaluated on only what was obvious to boss.

I remember turning it in and then a little while later seeing him walk out of his office and look around our work area like he was seeing it for the first time. I realized shortly after that it was the first time he was seeing that a lot of what was right in front of his face. He had looked around and then blinked at me and asked me to write myself up for one of our quarterly recognition programs. He was always asking about what I was doing after that. He realized that I was contributing in ways that he’d never expected but that were valuable and attributed to team progress on many things.

We certainly don’t live in a meritocracy, but that was the beginning of my recognition about that. People have to be able to see everything for that without putting expectations on people by fitting them into stereotypes. I had thought in that job that I was in a meritocracy until this happened. I had convinced myself that some things didn’t matter to the leadership the way that it did to the people in the shop who it directly affected. But I had been wrong, it mattered to them very much, they had just attributed it to someone else. It was one of the first times that I could see the difference between full out sexism and just a little internal bias. That boss never treated the women poorly, but he still didn’t expect of us everything that the men did and so he couldn’t even recognize it until it was put before him that we were doing much more than expected as women and some of us were doing much more than what was expected of the men too.

Two years after that incident, I was promoted into a position lateral to my former boss and realized what he had been dealing with and the many subtle blinders that stand between supervisors and any one of their workers. Those of us who want a meritocracy try to do a good job of seeing as much as possible, but there’s a blind spot where all kinds of little biases keep us from seeing each worker equally. Expectation can be a hindrance when you don’t stop to make sure you are expecting the same from every worker and that you’re looking for the same level of work. Trying for a meritocracy in the workplace is great, but achieving one will be better. Until then, let’s try to get a little further and a little more practiced every day.

How do you work toward a meritocracy where you work?

By the way, if you’re looking for further evidence outside of my personal account, check out Innovating Women: The Changing Face of Technology, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, and Gender, Work, and Economy: Unpacking the Global Economy. Each book talks a bit about it as well.
There’s also a great deal to learn from work, meritocracy and gender from those of us who don’t fit easily into our birth-assigned genders and those who otherwise defy gendered expectations, such as the LGBT community. Check out Out and Equal, which I’m currently reading and is amazing so far.

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