Meritocracy : a system in which the talented are chosen and moved ahead on the basis of their achievement.
Every year or two, the media takes a few anecdotes by former employees of a successful company and blows them way out of proportion, portraying corporate meritocracies as political fight clubs that pit employees against each other and prioritize sales and profits over basic human rights and dignity.
Yesterday it was Amazon. Today it’s Uber. Tomorrow it will be some other high-growth company. The thing is, every organization has issues. The bigger they are and the more they push the envelope, the more issues they have. It comes with the territory. But make no mistake, high-performance cultures are not inherently bad. On the contrary, they describe some of the most successful companies on Earth.
A 2015 New York Times expose, “Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace,” painted a picture of a brutally combative culture where employees were mercilessly driven 24x7, the competitive pressure made grown men cry, and nothing was ever good enough for management. It sounded like something out of a dystopian nightmare.
In a companywide email, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos said, “The article doesn’t describe the Amazon I know,” but he encouraged employees to read the piece and notify him or HR of any stories similar to those reported. “Even if it’s rare or isolated,” he said, “our tolerance for any such lack of empathy needs to be zero.”
That said, Bezos unabashedly runs a results-driven culture that thrives on constant innovation, hard work, high standards, taking ownership and obsessing over the customer, among other things. Amazon’s core principles embody a business version of survival of the fittest that Bezos calls “Purposeful Darwinism.” Say what you will, it works; the Seattle-based company dominates the online retail world.
Uber’s situation is oddly similar. The Silicon Valley company has been under fire ever since former engineer Susan Fowler shared her experiences of gender bias, management hubris and HR ambivalence in a blog post. Again, the Times took the opportunity to target meritocracy with, “Inside Uber’s Aggressive, Unrestrained Workplace Culture.”
The rest of the click-hungry media followed suit, rushing to judgment and to take advantage of the latest corporate train wreck. Some even took the opportunity to condemn the entire tech industry. Ellen Pao, who lost a high-profile sexual harassment suit to VC firm Kleiner Perkins in 2014 and has since turned diversity activist, penned “Toxic Behavior at Uber Reveals Tech’s Existential Rot” for Time Inc.
None of this is coincidence. Uber actually has 14 corporate values that CEO Travis Kalanick modeled after Amazon’s 10 leadership principles. Like Bezos, Kalanick wrote an email telling employees that he believes in “creating a workplace where a deep sense of justice underpins everything we do” and calling for an independent review into the allegations raised by Fowler.
Here’s the thing. I spent decades working in and around the tech industry. The cultures of Amazon and Uber are, in many ways, similar to those of dozens (if not hundreds) of companies I’ve dealt with. They’re each unique, but they all hire and promote the best and most accomplished talent. That’s what defines a meritocracy.
Sure, there are individuals who take it too far. There are worthless HR departments that look the other way when high-performing employees behave badly. There are executives who push too hard. There is bias and favoritism. It happens. Unfortunately, it happens in every organization, especially those that employ tens of thousands of people around the globe.
But for a company to become as successful as Intel, Apple, Amazon or Uber, that sort of behavior must be isolated. It simply cannot be institutionalized because, as Bezos explains, any company doing so would not survive, much less thrive, in today’s highly competitive talent market.
“The people we hire here are the best of the best,” he said, “You are recruited every day by other world-class companies, and you can work anywhere you want. I strongly believe that anyone working in a company that really is like the one described in the NYT would be crazy to stay. I know I would leave such a company.”
Look, we can debate the relative merits of meritocracy all day long, but that’s not what this is about. It’s about creating a company culture where employees can do their best work and be proud of their accomplishments. It may not be for everyone, but then, it’s a free country. If you’re not happy where you work, you can always quit and work elsewhere. That’s the beauty of a free-market economy. And that’s the part that its detractors, and the media, always seem to forget.