By Neuza Chaves, senior advisor at FALCONI
It is possible to implement meritocracy in Brazilian companies, starting with the culture
“In a society rife with inequality, political jockeying and favoritism such as ours, it should be forbidden for anyone to expostulate on meritocracy.” Is this true? This is one of the questions I received after the recent publication of my book Meritocracia: influência da cultura brasileira no desempenho e no mérito (Meritocracy: the influence of Brazilian culture on performance and merit). Ultimately, meritocracy precisely uses preestablished criteria that assess people according to their merits, based only on their performance and not seniority, connections, family relations and friendships.
In fact, since the first attempts at meritocracy in Brazil, there have been claims that our culture betrays elements that do not favor its implementation. However, I disagree with those who would prefer to leave things as they are, arguing that meritocracy does not combine with our culture. Where would be today if we limited ourselves just to that which is compatible with our culture? If we do this with meritocracy, we will be underestimating what we’ve learned and our ability to intercede positively.
Some years ago, when I was a manager of a large state-run company and worked with a wonderful team, I devised a sort of armor. When we heard phrases like “This isn’t a private company” or “They aren’t going to approve it, there’s no point, it’s not going to fly,” we would toss these arguments into the “crippling alibi” box, and moved forward.
We know various organizations that have overcome the barriers to meritocracy and obtained excellent results, such as: motivation to achieve goals, hiring and retaining of people more suited to the business, elimination of appointments, and organizational climate improvements.
These companies that have managed to achieve fairer and more transparent management went beyond just talking, attuning all their practices to meritocracy. As people perceived that the effort was genuine and applied to everyone across the board, the message spread that merit was in earnest and the culture was gradually modified.
Starting with culture
Managing the restraints imposed by culture is the first step toward implementing meritocracy in a Brazilian company. Making an analogy with trees, our culture is rooted in ambiguity, personalism and concentration of power. Leaders must prevent these forces from rising within the trunk of flexibility, another striking characteristic. Let’s talk about each case:
1 – Ambiguity and antagonism
An example of ambiguity is when managers pretend they are supporting a certain initiative and discuss actions, but don’t really agree. They are in favor of meritocracy only in the presence of their leaders or other people that defend the initiative, but afterwards behave in an ambiguous way. This weakens management, generates uncertainty and promotes confusing decisions.
This inconsistency stretches far back, as can be seen in two articles from the first Constitution of Brazil, of March 25, 1824: “The Law shall be equal for all, whether to protect or punish, and will reward in proportion to each one’s merits ” and “All citizens can occupy civil, political or military public positions, with no distinction, other than their talents and virtues.” The articles formalized the concept of the meritocratic State, but what occurred in practice? In the first article, although it refers to the equality of all Brazilian citizens, the right to vote was not extended to women, clergymen, servants and people with low purchasing power. In the second, there was no description of the criteria for identifying such talents and virtues, but it was left up to government bodies to decide.
Although antagonism has been mentioned by almost all authors and researchers on Brazilian culture, I’m going to examine an analogy by the anthropologist Roberto DaMatta. He looks at Brazilians from two perspectives: people and individuals. As people, their environment is the home and they are protected by their relationships, the benevolence of others, superior recognition of their qualities and loving support, even when they fail. As individuals, their environment is the street where they are exposed to risk, called on to demonstrate their abilities, and subjected to norms and rules and to authorities, who treat them without consideration of their relationships or blood ties.
Although Brazilians move between the home and the street, the natural and predominant characteristic of our culture is linked to the perspective of people. This gives rise to the focus on personal relationships, which override the criteria of merit and are responsible for securing a job for a son, daughter or acquaintance, or for altering a performance appraisal to favor a friend, for example. In cultures that focus on the individual, the environment is more conducive to meritocracy, where professionals reject family ties at work, appointments and personal interests.
These cultures encourage individuals to have ambition and strive, since their status and compensation depend on their performance and not on family relations, surnames or influential friends. In these cultures, feedback is assertive and differentiating between people on the basis of merit is more accepted. However, since human beings have similarities in all countries, even there, meritocracy can be distorted.
2 – Personalism
Who doesn’t know leaders who have difficulties being impartial when assessing or recognizing people on their team? There are those who are fear hurting others, those who use power to cause harm and those who are not prepared to practice meritocracy. This occurs due to personalism, another trait of Brazilian culture that impedes the practice of meritocracy, because it considers people and their ties, family relations and bonds of friendship, instead of applying the criteria to individuals.
Although many organizations have already reduced the clout of this trait, all it takes is easing up a little and it reemerges, since it is a natural force. The best indicator that personalism is under control is when a leader recognizes a professional and the entire team agrees with the decision.
3 – Concentration of power
“I’m in charge here and won’t tolerate being bypassed”, “Copy me in all your emails” and “Don’t do anything without talking to me “. These phrases have been disappearing from the vocabulary of leaders, but it is still possible to hear them at times. They express another aspect of Brazilian culture: concentration of power. This trait strongly curbs meritocracy because it distances leaders from their teams, does not allow for personal initiative or autonomy and, therefore, stunts people’s potential.
I recently heard a testimony from a CEO who, upon admitting concentration of power in his company, was able to reinforce meritocracy and motivate employees to achieve business objectives. He started by encouraging and training managers to delegate and recognize the initiatives of those on the front lines, in addition to eliminating command/obedience management and pointing out merit publicly, with financial and other incentives. By communicating to everyone that the company was recognizing the people who deserved it, the CEO was giving exposure to meritocracy.
In turn, the other leaders understood that by concentrating power they were constantly overloaded and struggling to achieve goals, since their teams held back out of fear, discouragement and lack of autonomy to demonstrate their performance.
Culture and appraisal
Performance appraisal is the main tool for attributing merit and must be one of the key targets of any company that wishes to implement meritocracy. In Brazil, however, it is common to hear stories about biased appraisals, done by leaders who prioritize feelings and personality traits, to the detriment of actions and results.
A common flaw in companies is to try and improve performance appraisals by tweaking the instrument. This is not the solution, but rather how appraisals are carried out. The worst option is to ignore the strong subjectivity of our culture, believing that an instrument can make it more objective. Leaders need to be trained in behavioral aspects to learn how to deal better with teams and help them improve their performance. If employees know and understand what is expected of their performance, as well as the criteria by which they will be assessed, this reduces the level of mistrust as to how leaders interpret the criteria and apply the metrics.
Meritocracy also requires consequences to be structured to encourage achievement of objectives and regular feedback must be given on performance, so that employees have sufficient time to correct their performance.
Before it’s too late
It’s undeniable that inequality, injustice and other vices in our culture limit meritocracy. However, it can be implemented even if the path is more difficult. The first steps must address cultural traits, identifying and curbing them, before they lead to the loss of key people.
A brief case study
Resistance to meritocracy often occurs because of lack of knowledge or erroneous information. It’s important to always help people understand its meaning.
The owner of a company had read the book Good to Great, by Jim Collins, which argues that what sets companies apart is their ability to differentiate people and recognize merit. He contacted us to implement meritocracy in his organization, which had been experiencing serious problems, such as turnover of professionals crucial to the business, dissatisfaction of employees in key departments and other relevant indicators that were poor.
In observing the environment, we noted internal resistance. Directors and managers were tired of that narrative from the boss. So, instead of talking about meritocracy, we presented the results of organizations that were successful by adopting practices that challenge people with goals and reward those who achieve them by adhering to the company’s values. Little by little, the leaders started understanding the need to change the nature of management, linking merit to results and eliminating the power of personal relationships, which was something that created unpleasant situations and conflicts in that particular company.
In conclusion, a meritocratic model was born, tailored to that organization, but strong and sufficient to motivate the right professionals.
Source: HSM Management Magazine – Edition 126 – Jan/Feb 2018