Meritocratic Humanism- beyond charismatic leaders

It is not very easy to co-hold humanistic values  with demands of meritocracy. This is understandable because meritocracy entails looking at people primarily in terms of their skills, competencies and contribution. The emphasis is on what the person brings to the table rather than who he/she is, where does he/she come from or even what kind of person he/she is. On the other hand, in humanism, the emphasis is on  person as a human being, his/her unique context, personal qualities and relating to him/her as a fellow human rather than as an object of utility. It is therefore not surprising that research shows a clear negative correlation between the two and considerable effort is expended by many leaders and managers to find the “right balance” between the conflicting demands of humanism and meritocracy.

Simultaneously, there are people who do not play this “balancing game”. Their emphasis is on the convergences between humanism and meritocracy rather than getting caught with the conflicting pulls between the two. In their scheme of things humanism and meritocracy become mutually supportive of each other rather than being enemies of each other. Thus the “human touch” provided by such people becomes a source of inspiration for higher levels of performance. Simultaneously the “performance pressure” that they apply makes the person feel more cherished and valued as a “human being”

In almost all traditional Indian companies that I visit, I hear many stories about these charismatic figures with considerable nostalgia. A common theme across these stories is about their being “highly demanding” in performance standards and also “deeply caring” about virtually all stakeholders viz. co-workers, customers, clients etc. Simultaneity of caring and demanding seems to have been an important ingredient of their charisma.Thus it appears that at least in the Indian context, these charismatic leaders held the tension between humanism and meritocracy on behalf of the entire system. While this worked well in a certain context, the efficacy of such a process in the current context is doubtful. There are two main reasons for this-

  1. These charismatic leaders create considerable dependency and often become the proverbial banyan trees under which nothing grows. Consequently, the organisations that they leave behind are a peculiar mix of  a”close family” and a “well-oiled machine”. Generally, these organisations are fairly self-sustaining and can survive even with average leadership in a reasonably stable environment. However they lack in agility and ability to transform themselves in a dynamic and turbulent environment. This can be easily witnessed in many traditional Indian organisations post liberalisation. The end result is that they often find themselves playing the “catching up” game even in areas where they may have earlier played a pioneering role.
  2. The socio-economic changes in the larger context, including shifts in child-rearing practices, family and community relations, greater emphasis on individualistic values etc. has led to reduced power distance in authority relations. Today there is much more pull towards equalisation, participation, transparency etc.  The notion of a “benevolent patriarch” may not have totally disappeared but has certainly lost some of its sheen.

Thus we are left with no choice other than learning to co-hold the demands of humanism and meritocracy ourselves rather than depending upon a charismatic leader to do it on our behalf. The first step in this process will be to review some of the frozen meanings that we hold about both humanism and meritocracy.

In my experience, humanism is often interpreted in a soft, sentimental sort of way with very little room for authentic encounter and confrontation.One often comes across managers who refrain from giving negative feedback to their subordinates lest they hurt their “feelings”. Similarly exercise of lateral and upward authority is shunned in the name of respect, concern ,empathy and a host of similar so called humanistic values. The end result is that humanism  gets reduced to mere interface management and a convenient way of not engaging with the unpleasant realities of the system. To illustrate this process, let me give an example.

A fairly common finding in the engagement surveys conducted by many organisations  is that a statement like “I am treated with respect” gets a reasonably high score. Simultaneously, statements like ” I receive honest and regular feedback on my performance” OR ” I am consulted on decisions which affect me”, tend to receive much lower scores. The obvious question which this disparity raises is – What does respect mean if it is not accompanied by authenticity and relevant involvement? A reasonable hypothesis would be that all that is being said by the respondents is that no one shouts at them or behaves “badly” with them, but nevertheless they end up being taken for granted. The underlying indignity and patronisation of this process is rarely recognised.

Such superficial interpretations of humanism lead to a situation where authentic engagements are replaced by polite diplomatic interfaces. Interestingly research data shows that most Indian managers find their organisations to be over-diplomatic. If this is how humanism is being interpreted then it can only be an impediment to meritocracy and never become its ally.

Much the same can be said in respect of meritocracy. Invariably, it is interpreted in terms of “deliverables” and targets and that too on a quarter to quarter basis. The institutional contribution of the individual or the invisible waste/ damage that he/she may have caused in achievement of the numbers is rarely taken into account. Even efficacy of developmental interventions like training programmes/workshops is measured by feedback rating scales. Is it then any surprise that many trainers/consultants focus more on creating a favourable impression rather than on learning? Personally, I am extremely sceptical of interventions which create only euphoria and no distress.

Similarly, I have found moderately high scores in employee engagement as a much better indicator of healthy employee interface than extremely high scores. Many times extremely high scores indicate complacency and collective delusions. In such cases, it is not unusual to find a disconnect between employee engagement scores and company performance/perception of other stakeholders like customers. On the other hand moderately high scores tend to indicate positive self-regard coupled with a realistic appraisal of the difficulties and potent restlessness to improve the situation. Unfortunately, in the so called meritocracy ,the focus is on winning the much coveted prize of the “best employer” rather than thinking about the health of the organisation-employee interface.

To sum up, co-holding of humanism and meritocracy will entail a serious review of the meanings that we may have given to them. At the surface level, we will not only find them as adversaries but also as self-defeating. Superficial humanism only creates invisible indignities and superficial meritocracy only creates invisible waste. In order to pursue their true essence we will need to discover their convergence and mutually supportive relationship. Not that the inherent conflicting pull will disappear altogether but we may be pleasantly surprised that they not merely complement each other in very significant ways, but in fact are meaningless without each other.

3 thoughts on “Meritocratic Humanism- beyond charismatic leaders

  1. very well written. Often helplessness and anguish are what I feel when working with organisations, where the difference between respect and effective management of interface are confused and held as the same. In fact in such organisations, people are actually treated as fragile, weak, sentimental beings who cannot handle pressure or authentic feedback and at the same time this impression is withheld and what are offered is superficial bonhomie and tolerance in the name of the equality. I think the biggest tragedy is that people do pick these up but cannot either decipher or work with, as none of these are manifest or apparent. Hence there are both doubts and a self questioning for having the doubt!

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  2. Powerfully written, Ashok thank you. I cant think o one example where humanism and meritocracy have been co-held in a sustainable way as opposed to interventionally. I think the intent is there, invested in some people but co-holding would mean looking not just at the culture in organizations but creating supportive systemic structures around it i suppose. There are lines of insight and great beauty in your writing Ashok, great read to begin my morning. Thanks!


    1. Thank you Dhanu. As I was reading your response, I started thinking of our struggles in Sumedhas around this issue. I believe, one of the biggest blocks that we have is our refusal to invest in our own emotional and cognitive maturity and transcend some of the frozen meanings that we have collectively given to both humanism and meritocracy. I know, I am being a bit cryptic here, but lets talk about it when we meet for IM. Look forward to seeing you there.


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