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We may want meritocracy, but can we find it?

We may want meritocracy, but can we find it?
We may want meritocracy, but can we find it? 1

Anyone with qualification can be competent in a job after a stint, so it is often just the issue of likeability that determines whether one gets selected or promoted for a job.

We may want meritocracy, but can we find it?

From Nehru Sathiamoorthy

The question of merit seems to be high on the mind of many prominent Malaysians these days. The Penang deputy chief minister P Ramasamy, recently demanded that the civil servants be hired by merit. Rafidah Aziz, the Iron Lady of Malaysia, has recently come out with the statement that she wants women to be hired to top positions, not by quota.

It seems like all of Malaysia wants people to be hired by merit, although none of us knows how hiring by merit is supposed to be done!

I suppose it is human nature to think that we and those we identify with are the best, and therefore if we are not chosen to receive something we desire, the only reason why this is happening – it must be because we are being deliberately denied something that rightfully belongs to us. It is this feeling that causes us to feel indignant and discriminated against.

This view, however, leans too conveniently in favour of the argument that the fact that we are the best person for the job is self-evident.

We often assume too easily that it is obvious to everyone that we are the best person for the job.

The truth, however, is that in 90% of jobs in the world, the best person for the job cannot be determined.

In only 10% of the jobs in the world, it will be self-evident as to whether the best person got the job.

It will be self-evident, because if any among the 10% doesn’t come to work, the entire organisation or the department will descend into chaos. As for the remaining 90% of the employees in the organisation, the question of who is the best cannot be determined, simply because if any one of the 90% do not show up to work, work will still go on.

I did not come up with the number randomly, mind you.

I came up with it according to Price’s Square Root Law, which says that in any organisation, it is only 10% of the people that will be doing most of the meaningful jobs. The remaining 90% will just be performing a supportive role. Their job is chiefly to assist and enable the 10%, and they are dispensable, in that even if they don’t come to work, nothing of significance will occur.

Rafidah and Ramasamy are obviously not raising the question of merit for the sake of the 10%.

The 10%, having merit, do not need for the question of merit to be raised on their behalf. If you are among the 10%, you do not depend on anyone to take care of yourself.

You can take care of your own self. If the organisation that you are in cannot provide you with the space and opportunity that you require, you won’t complain that things are unfair – you will just pack your bags and go to a different organisation that can provide you with what you want. If you have merit, there will not be a dearth of organisations that will be willing to take you in.

If the question of merit is raised at all, it is raised on behalf of the 90% of employees who cannot stand on their own or go anywhere else, and thus require that they are selected or promoted within a particular organisation, because that is the only way they can get ahead in life.

For various reasons, these employees or potential employees may believe that they are the best – some believe they are the best because they have a particular skill set, others because they have a particular paper qualification or others because they feel they have proven their loyalty to the organisation via their long tenure – and believing thus, they will rue the fact that someone else among the 90% who do not have their skill set, paper qualification or loyalty, were picked for a job or a promotion, instead of them.

While these employees or potential employees may believe that it is the issue of merit that stood in the way of their selection or promotion, it is actually the issue of likeability that is usually the one that got in the way of their promotion and selection. Because 90% of employees in any organisation cannot stand on their own two feet or be welcomed with open arms by other organisations, the only way that they can rise in their job is if they are preferred by their superiors. To be preferred, they only have to show competence and likeability.

Anyone with qualification can be competent in a job after a stint, so it is often just the issue of likeability that becomes the determiner of whether one gets selected or promoted for a job.

In other words, in 90% of the time, we might believe that we did not get the job or promotion that we merited, because of our gender or race, but the truth is, in 90% of cases, the question of merit actually does not arise at all. As a matter of fact, in the 10% of cases where the question of merit can arise, it actually won’t arise.

Because of that, there is no way that Ramasamy or Rafidah or anyone else can prove that the jobs in the civil service or places in the board of directors did not go to the people that merited them, just because they are heavily represented by one race or gender.

The reason that women and other races are not proportionally represented in the board of directors and civil service, respectively, has more to do with likeability and the fact that women and other races do not satisfy the in-built preferences of the superiors who are empowered to select them.

We all know that this is the case. The only question is, how do we address it?

 

Nehru Sathiamoorthy is an FMT reader.

The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.

We may want meritocracy, but can we find it? 1
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