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Main Content

Strengthening Your Merit-Orientation Ability

When you have a strong merit orientation, you're able to judge ideas and other people on merit alone, without bias or favoritism.

For example, you're part of a team that's handling a challenging project. The project has fallen behind schedule, owing to some unexpected problems, and the team has gathered for a meeting to address the situation. As the group begins discussing the delay and exploring potential solutions, Tom clears his throat in that annoying way he has. Then, in his typical monotone voice, he puts forth his idea for solving the scheduling problem.

Your first reaction is to groan inwardly. What a geek, you think to yourself. Tom has irritated you since the inception of the project. A sloppy dresser with nonexistent social skills, he comes across as a know-it-all and tends to drone on and on if you give him any attention. However, even as your annoyance flares, you find yourself mulling over the idea Tom has put on the table. You realize that a lot of what he's saying could actually help get the team's project back on track. Forcing yourself to ignore Tom's off-putting demeanor, you say to the group, "I think Tom has a good point. How might we put this idea to work?"

Many people like to think that they judge others' ideas on merit alone. After all, who wants to admit that they're biased or that they engage in favoritism? However, a strong merit orientation is actually quite rare. So, the fact that you're reading this suggests that you're being remarkably honest with yourself about your abilities!

A merit orientation is important in all walks of life, because it enables you to spot and leverage good ideas that you might have ignored had you let yourself be influenced by biases – as demonstrated in the above example. A merit orientation also helps you avoid embracing a bad idea that seems good on the surface just because you happen to like the person who has originated the idea.

How to strengthen your merit-orientation? Consider these suggestions:

  • Read books, articles, and papers on mental biases (including prejudice and stereotyping). Potential useful titles include The Psychology of Prejudice by Todd D. Nelson, Stereotypes and Prejudice: Key Readings by C. Stangor, and Managing Diversity by Norma Carr-Ruffino.

  • Take an online learning course on how to decide whether to compromise. Examples include the "Working Across Differences" module in the Harvard ManageMentor series, developed by Harvard Business School Publishing. Your company may have purchased a site license for such e-learning programs. Or, you may be able to buy a CD containing modules of interest as well as participate in them online or download them from the developer. Some developers charge a fee for participation in the courses they offer; others offer modules for free.

  • Consult an expert. Find someone who you view as having a particularly strong merit orientation. Ask this person how he or she has strengthened this skill.

  • Attend a workshop or course in understanding and dealing with prejudice, stereotyping, and interpersonal or cultural differences. Your company may offer such learning opportunities or may be willing to reimburse your tuition if you take such a course through another organization. Local university extension programs, as well as continuing education programs, may offer such workshops and courses.

  • Face up to your own unconscious biases. Whenever you're considering an idea presented by another person, take a moment to notice assumptions you may be making about that individual based on his or her gender, educational background, race, nationality, age, appearance, and mannerisms. Also consider whether your previous experiences with this individual are influencing your evaluation of the person now. For example, have his ideas typically struck you as faulty in the past – so you're assuming that his current idea also has flaws? Mentally turn off these biases as you evaluate the idea presented to you. Likewise, identify and turn off positive biases that may be causing you to swallow a new idea unquestioningly. For instance, do you automatically embrace ideas coming from people you like and enjoy working with? If so, you're not judging those ideas on their merit alone.

  • Practice establishing some distance between you and others who are presenting an idea. Imagine that you don't know the person who's advocating an idea to you: How would you judge her idea if she were a stranger to you and you knew nothing about her? How would you evaluate the idea if it came to you anonymously?

Strengthening your merit-orientation takes practice. But the results are well worth the effort. The recommendations listed above can help you hone this important business skill.