Monday, September 11, 2017

Meritocracy vs. Trust

[Partially a response to The Craft is not the Community.]

Whenever a group of humans get together to accomplish some goal, there's a fundamental tension between meritocracy and trust.

If I know you can reject me for lack of skill, I may worry about this and lose confidence. But if I know you never will, I may phone it in and stop caring about my actual work output.

Both meritocracy and trust contribute to a functioning project, which is what makes this difficult to balance.

Trust Improves Productivity

Psychological safety is the sense an employee has that they are able to make mistakes in front of their coworkers and not be immediately rejected. According to internal studies of teams at Google, psychological safety is a major predictor of team productivity.

This makes sense to me from the inside, because I've done much better work on teams where I feel safe enough to ask lots of questions. If I don't feel that way, it often means I waste tons of time struggling with questions or problems that would have been easy if I'd asked for help.

This is acutely important in software development, where every person tends to have their own fiefdom of special knowledge with no application to anywhere else, and which is extremely time-consuming to acquire. In such an environment, asking a question can be tremendously more time-efficient in total than every person acquiring the knowledge themselves.

But if an employee worries that they'll be perceived as less efficient or productive when they ask questions, they may not ask the question. This is bad from everyone's perspective, but especially the employer's.

... But So Does Meritocracy

But employers need to be able to fire poor performers, and sometimes being a poor performer means having to ask for help more than you should.

As an employer, you have to figure out how to design incentives so that your employees trust each other enough, but you can enact consequences when you need to.

Minimum Hiring Bars and Other Solutions

One solution is to lie to your employees and tell them you'll love them no matter what, while holding a checklist of "Bad Employee Traits" behind your back. This doesn't work very well, because people aren't stupid.

A solution for employees is to have a team that trusts each other, but not upper management; in this way, they will be able to ask each other for help, while knowing that their team members will cover for them if necessary. This can have bad long-term effects, because poor performers with lots of friends may be protected from consequences, ultimately dragging down the organization.

Another solution is to give up completely on one in order to maximize the other. For example, Netflix takes the extreme end of the "meritocracy" question (and pays people a ton of money to make up for it).

The solution that the plurality of tech employers use: Have a minimum hiring or entry bar. Get all your meritocracy out of the way first. Once you're in the club, you're in the club, and we'll trust you to get things done however you need to. The downside here is that when employees start on a downhill slide, it'll take you longer to react to it, because you're giving them the benefit of the doubt.

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