Extreme Meritocracy


Clinical psychologist Sara-Ann wrote a recent piece on CNA about young people burning out in life and work (especially work); it relates somewhat tangentially to my not-so-recent musings on prestige careers. Strangely, she decides to spend more of her piece empowering the individual, listing 5 points that the individual can do to combat burn out. Nevertheless, she tucked in the piece a very important statement we should delve more deeply into, as a society:

[T]he onus is on organisations to recognise the importance of workplace health and build workplace cultures conducive to their employees’ physical and mental health.

There is a need to put this responsibility back to organisations; and one of the difficulty of doing this, is perhaps the misconceived notion which Sara-Ann herself perpetuated by saying:

Indeed, organisations should tread cautiously and strive to achieve a balance between increasing productivity and deleteriously endorsing a hustle culture.

This is ultimately an issue of balancing short-term and long-term priorities for any organisations. To me, the only perspective worth taking is still the long-term perspective and anything that is used to deal with short-term issues must not detract from the long-term perspective. The lack of worker engagement, endorsement of hustle culture, always asking for ‘more’ (which might involve cutting corners to create capacity to deal with more) as oppose to ‘better’ (which could involve questioning practices, eliminating inefficient or unnecessary ones, so as to create capacity to do more important things), reflects an organisation that has lost sight of the long-term perspective.

I think organisations, leaders, need to assist individuals on all of the 5 points that Sara-Ann pointed out in her commentary.

  1. Structures and leadership in place must be able to catch the warning signs of burnt out individuals – especially good-performing ones
  2. At risks of being paternalistic, organisations need to ensure basic needs of staff are fulfilled – work can never be the expense of physical and even (genuine, not perceived) psychological needs.
  3. Companies and organisations must develop credos that emphasize clear sets of priorities and actively help staff resolve conflicts between these priorities so that each individual have a good sense of how to order their work to achieve the most for the organisation
  4. Workplace health promotion and social activities can sometimes end up being additional obligations – take active steps to ensure that downtime for workers are genuine downtimes and encourage participation gently. Provide staff with time and space for down-time.
  5. Create routines for engagements that are genuine, unpretentious and safe for staff to express their views, engage in meaningful debates on things that matters to them at work. Too often, ground views are suppressed in favour of management views, politics ignored or taken as given; respecting employees, down to the lowest level, is the

A recent book I’ve been reading, Enlightened Capitalists by James O’Toole talks about many leaders and companies who have sought to do all that, and more. Whether the small size and open nature of the Singapore economy allows for that sort of practices is another story. Too often, these companies are considered sui generis but given Singapore being also a bit of a sui generis itself – I wonder, if we could choose to take this lead in this part of the world to make a difference to the way our own country continues to develop, and the manner the region would grow.

If we are to do so, then our extreme meritocracy which Sara-Ann described would be the first place to start working on. In fact, Clifton Mark penned a piece earlier this year in Fast Company, which suggests that not only is the notion of meritocracy an illusionary ideal, believing in it actually do you little good. And that, is probably how our poor 26-year-old Dave in Sara-Ann’s commentary came to be where he is. To address this conundrum relating to what could well be one of our national ideals (another one, probably less mentioned now and peddled around only when necessary, is pragmatism), would be a great challenge.

The only means would be to identify other values to supplant this so-called ideal. It has to be compelling both in psychology, philosophy and also sustainable in its economics. And to that end, I think the virtues of care, and making sure that we can sustain caring, can be a good starting point to see what we can crystallise eventually. Just as people had thought that treating people as resources for a company rather than as the soul of the company (courtesy of Sara-Ann who used that description) made economic sense; we can rewrite this orthodoxy through learning from companies highlighted in James’ book: Johnson & Johnson, ACIPCO, Levi Strauss & Co, Lewis Partnership, etc.