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Flexible Work and the Meritocracy Myth

I was at SHRM’s Annual Conference in Chicago last week, speaking about how HR can support effective remote work. I’ve given different versions of this talk in a few contexts, but one of my core messages is always that remote work (in any form, be it fully remote teams or roles, or a ‘work from home’ policy) cannot succeed if it is layered over a low-trust work environment.

When I speak about this topic, I share a few symptoms of low-trust as it relates to remote work, and one of them is an organization in which managers are free to treat ‘work from home’ as a reward, rather than understanding and applying a clearly defined business reason for committing to remote work/’work from home’ as an organization.

The story underlying this approach (usually unspoken, although sometimes stated explicitly) goes like this:

  • “Generally, we can’t trust people to work unless we’re monitoring them”
  • “Therefore, I will only let people work remotely (without constant monitoring) if they have already proven themselves to excel at producing within the default structure of work” (typically 9 to 5, in person, according to the norms of our organization)

Notice, if you will, the unconscious assumption underlying this logic:

  • “Our workplace is a neutral environment in which to measure and compare individual performance”

This assumption leads to a conclusion: if someone can’t perform well within our default structure and conditions then they are not a good performer and have not ‘earned’ an alternate work arrangement.

This notion, that one must ‘earn’ the ability to work in a way that deviates from the supposedly neutral, default way of working that most organizations subscribe to, is so deeply embedded in many of our work cultures (and even in the broader Western ‘work ethic’) that it can be hard to notice or question.

But if we do dig in a little deeper, I’m convinced that at an even deeper level it’s linked to our unconscious beliefs about meritocracy.

The Meritocracy Myth

From Rocking the Boat by Debra E. Meyerson:

“The story of meritocracy in U.S. culture is a dominant narrative that provides ready explanations for who gets ahead in organizations, who doesn’t, and why. The accepted story is “people who try hard and have the capability will get ahead.” The converse is, of course, implicit: “Those who don’t get ahead must not be as able or hard working as those who do.” The story of meritocracy justifies a wide range of existing organizational arrangements, including organizational hiring, evaluation, and promotion systems, but it is so institutionalized within U.S. culture that its truthfulness is rarely acknowledged or challenged.”

Note that, as a Canadian, I would argue that this is not only true for US culture. I also realize that I’m talking about location of work in this post, which is only one possible dimension of flexible working.  And while remote work isn’t suitable for all organizations or all roles,  the principles I’m talking about (the assumption that the default work environment is neutral and unbiased, and that it is unwise to trust employees to work in ways that deviate from that default) apply to other aspects of flexibility also.

The point is that we tend to underestimate the role of context in individual performance, and overestimate the existence and contribution of stable, persistent qualities of that person. And yet I’d guess that most of us have experienced a work environment that simply didn’t bring out our best. We likely went on to thrive elsewhere, but may not connect that experience to the broader lesson that sometimes the person we label as being a ‘poor performer’ might be one small ‘work environment tweak’ away from contributing in valuable ways. When we assume that our traditional work environment is a neutral backdrop for everyone’s work to be measured against, we are absolutely skewing our perception of employee potential and ability.

Flexible Work: Small Wins Can Lead to New Thinking

As I said in my presentation, fixing low trust is a huge, complicated endeavor. Examining and challenging our unconscious beliefs in meritocracy even more so. But if we recognize that organizational or individual resistance to flexible work may be low trust and unconscious belief in meritocracy, we can adjust our approach.

We might work with leaders to better define and communicate the business reasons for the organization to embrace flexible work options and establish shared guidelines to consider it on an individual or team basis (top down), as well as work with managers to examine their underlying concerns and make it safer to experiment with flexible work (bottom up).

I’d suggest helping managers answer the question “how will I know they’re working?” for individuals on their team (defining expected outputs, team communication norms, and status updates), agreeing to ‘trial periods’ for their team to work flexibly, and leading a regular team retro about how they worked together and how they can do better going forward. This shifts focus from whether an individual has earned (and continues to merit) flexible work, to an approach of working collaboratively to overcome the inevitable challenges that a team will experience as changes in working location/timing/approach occur.

Not every experiment will be a success, and there will undoubtedly still be some individual performance issues that crop up. But these types of small experiments (as opposed to a giant one-size-fits-all program) can have a big impact on individual managers’ beliefs, and perhaps even the organization’s overall opinion of flexible work. Meyerson writes:

“…flexible work scheduling raises questions about the “truth” of meritocracy. If people with outside constraints can perform more effectively with flexible scheduling, then maybe some “poor performers” who didn’t get that option were not incapable of being successful.

This question raises the possibility that systemic biases might be a factor in job performance. In this way, small wins can implicitly or explicitly call into question the dominant narratives that explain and hold in place existing practices. They also create openings for alternative truths of why things are as they are, which can teach powerful lessons and pave the way for subsequent changes in practices”

Start small, and ask the right questions. See where it takes you.

Recommended Reading:

How Not to Take Up Space While Taking Up Space – Tyler Baldor, Behavioural Scientist

One of the largest Pride Parades in the world took place today in my city, Toronto. This timely post from Tyler Baldor is a must-read for those of us who aspire to be allies and supporters. It addresses the question: “When a non-minority enters a minority space, such as a straight patron at a Pride parade or in a gay bar, where is the sociological fine line between intruder and guest?”

It’s a thought-provoking and instructive read, not just in reference to gay spaces, but also to other spaces and situations in which well-meaning (or oblivious) outsiders may find themselves.

“These sociological lessons extend beyond gay bars. We should expect to see similar dynamics occur among other outsider groups in other minority spaces, such as white allies at Black Lives Matter protests or gentrifiers in their new neighborhood’s community garden. Understanding that minority spaces are not de facto gay or black or for residential old-timers but rather sets of particular activities occurring in physical spaces should help clarify the ways in which outsiders can be present in and maybe even contribute to minority space, rather than exoticize, diminish, or “take up space.”

When organisations take more than they give to the equality agenda – James Elfer, LSE Business Review

A sobering read from James Elfer on who high-profile corporate D&I efforts actually benefit:

“When an organisation makes loud claims about equality at work, they’re not contributing to the agenda. They’re taking from it. They’re withdrawing reputation and brand equity and depositing little back in return.

To return that equity, they need to take meaningful action. You can often spot ‘meaning’ because it brings risk and scrutiny. It’s likely to lead to a structural change in their business and take aim at a specific, measurable problem.”

Want To End Sexual Harassment? Landmark Study Finds Ousting ‘Bad Men’ Isn’t Enough – Emily Peck, Huffington Post

Well, yeah.

This massive report (which I’m working my way through), is important and provides additional support to many of the conclusions reached by the EEOC Special Taskforce on this topic (as well as many expert researchers in this area over the last few decades).

I spoke about this topic at the Conference Board of Canada’s Workplace Mental Health conference earlier this month and will write more about it in the coming weeks, with additional commentary on the excellent presentation from Jonathan Segal I attended at SHRM last week.

“The study finds that the strongest, most potent predictor of sexual harassment is essentially the culture of the company ― what the researchers call “organizational climate.”

If employees believe that their organization takes harassment seriously, then harassment is less likely to happen”

A lot of organizations will see this as further encouragement to adopt and publicize their ‘zero tolerance’ policies. This would be a mistake. Aligned with the recent EEOC special task force report, the National Academies’ study found that this often back-fires:

“Cortina said that often, when a company claims to have a zero-tolerance policy, “victims of harassment will hesitate to come forward, fearing they’ll get someone fired. It’s counter-productive.”

I’d add that organizations with rigid zero tolerance policies will be incentivized to conclude conduct is not sexual harassment to avoid firing someone they feel has not acted in a way that warrants severe disciplinary action. Sexual harassment is a spectrum of behaviours and requires a range of responses. a

Photo by Will van Wingerden on Unsplash



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