THE BLOG
11/26/2014 03:09 pm ET Updated Jan 26, 2015

Meritocracy in the Modern World

What distinguishes high achievers from the rest of the pack?

Malcolm Gladwell, the best-selling author, sought to answer this question in Outliers: The Story of Success. One essential ingredient, he argued, is intellectual courage - the ability to stand up for what you believe in, no matter what the perceived consequences. Willingness to heed that inner voice, with confidence and conviction, is a shared characteristic of successful people, he concluded.

To illustrate the unique power of this wholly human attribute, Gladwell drew on a popular theory about the root cause of Korean airliner crashes in the 1980s and '90s. In one such crash, a plane deviated from its course in heavy clouds and flew straight into a mountain. There were no survivors. Cockpit records later suggested that the young co-pilot knew the plane was off course, but said nothing because he was unwilling to contradict the captain, who was steering the plane.

Intellectual honesty is easy when nobody is watching. But as that young co-pilot so tragically experienced, it's a lot different when you have an actual audience - particularly if that audience happens to be your boss.

I raise this story to make a larger point: Many companies today don't foster environments that encourage employees to freely speak their minds. Instead, more times than not, companies make it clear that the only opinions that truly matter are those of senior managers. In that sort of environment, people who are lower on the corporate ladder tend to be reluctant to step forward and express an opinion, or share a creative idea. Not because they don't want to; because they feel they can't.

This is especially true in the Middle East, where I am from. Here, corporate cultures are infused with a number of influences - some are helpful to growing organizations; others, not so much. One example of the latter is the practice of using a family name or personal connections to drive career advancement. Known regionally as "wasta," it's a robust and highly subjective form of favoritism that grants special treatment to family as well as non-family members - virtually anybody can take advantage. In our part of the world, I'm sorry to say, wasta is age-old, and rampant.

To be clear, wasta is not about hierarchy; it's about personal achievement, and how an employee experiences that: through family connections or personal clout (wasta) or through hard work and true merit (non-wasta).

To the American ear, "wasta" probably sounds an awful lot like "waste," and in practice, I will tell you candidly, there are a number of similarities. Those who use their wasta to secure jobs often feel they don't have to work very hard. Wasta hires expect and routinely receive promotions, even if they've done little - or even nothing - to earn the reward. Non-wasta hires bear witness to all this, of course. The net result of bifurcating workforces like this is exactly what you'd expect: morale suffers, along with productivity and financial performance. Companies are the biggest losers, by far, because they never get to benefit from the insights, ideas and creative energy that a properly hired and incented workforce can deliver.

Simply put, wasta is a waste - of energy, ideas and human capital.

All businesses have hierarchies, of course - without order, there is chaos. But some hierarchies are more rigid than others. The danger for employees stuck in stricter environments is that they actually become accustomed to not speaking up. As result, they're not willing to share ideas, or talk openly about problems or opportunities they see that may not be apparent to senior management. Red flags all around: When pecking order - not the quality of ideas - is the main driver of a business, the creative flow skids to a halt. Layer on wasta, and the whole ship basically sinks. Businesses, as always, are the biggest losers.

At my company, Alghanim Industries, we don't engage in wasta. We have a hierarchy, of course. But the environment around the pecking order is, by strategy and design, nurturing and encouraging. We don't expect intellectual or creative deference from anybody. Quite the contrary, we encourage our people at all levels - from the most junior on up - to freely express their opinions. Ideas are weighted and considered according to their merit, not on the basis of who offered them.

We also welcome constructive criticisms. If Alghanim Industries is missing the boat on something we want to hear about that right away. Likewise, if somebody has an idea about how we can work better, smarter or more profitably across our portfolio - we have more than 30 businesses in 40 countries, and are continuing to grow our footprint - we want to hear about that, too. As in right now. Not tomorrow or next week - now.

You don't get that sort of feedback if you're strangling employees with hierarchy and wasta. You get that by hiring the best people you can find, and then fostering an environment that allows those same employees to soar like eagles.

Why do we put so much effort into this? One simple reason: It's good for business.

At Alghanim Industries, we don't affix a bright line between junior and senior staff - we believe in the power of fresh thinking, no matter where it comes from. In other words, we are a meritocracy. In practice, that means we encourage employees at all levels to think, create and collaborate - freely, openly and without artificial restrictions. Promotions aren't conferred; they are earned.

And that, ultimately, is what a true meritocracy is all about: Allowing people to work their way up the career ladder on the basis of conviction and contributions, not who you happen to know or be related to by birth. Engaging in wasta, I would add, runs directly counter to a meritocracy; the two are inherently at odds.

Some of our peers in the Middle East have difficulty comprehending this concept: Why would we allow, much less encourage, intellectual independence in our workforce, especially among younger employees, they want to know. As for promoting and rewarding on the basis of merit, not blood or social connections - what's the point?

And this is what I tell them: Age does not necessarily equate to infallibility. Nor does experience - just because you've been at it for 20 or 30 years does not mean you have all the answers. Family is at the heart of life in the Middle East, and plays a big role in my own life, I would add. But family names are meant to be honored, I believe - not used as base currency in service of career advancement.

In my world, intellectual honesty is the key - to everything. I believe there is no honor, or business benefit, to asking employees to simply accept directives and soldier on. That sort of iron-fisted management, in my view, can only serve to crush spirits as well as creativity. I believe that any business is only as good as its people, which is why we, at Alghanim Industries, spend so much time cultivating a culture that celebrates, promotes and rewards the best and brightest. We ask a lot of our people, yes. But we also offer something in return: the chance to stand tall and make a difference, and get rewarded in the process.

That brings me back to where I started: Malcolm Gladwell and his theories about what makes for successful people. He argued in Outliers that intellectual courage is critical to long-term personal success. I believe that same characteristic is also essential to success in business. Whether you're building a new business from the ground up, or adding value as part of a management team in an established enterprise, intellectual courage - which is really another way of referring to an individual's willingness to heed his or her inner voice - is a fundamental driver of long-term success. My view is informed by what I have personally experienced, and observed, for the entirety of my business life.

I also believe this: A questioning spirit is at the heart of innovation. If properly encouraged and nurtured, this uniquely human quality can lead to some pretty amazing outcomes. The iPhone didn't wow the world because Apple engineers and designers were following the pack; it steamrolled because they had the courage to re-imagine the status quo. And they clearly had support of management to defy convention, otherwise they never could have pushed the design edge that far. Likewise, GE has built a global reputation as a training ground for future CEOs. It's not that GE is necessarily smarter than other companies when it comes to hiring, but it has truly cracked the code on cultivating an internal culture that inspires, prods and propels people to be the absolute best they can be.

That sort of magic doesn't happen if employees have a muzzle on them - it happens because they have impunity to challenge, create, collaborate and excel. At Alghanim Industries, we pride ourselves on pushing the status quo in our own way, and our meritocracy-based style of management is a very big part of that.

A version of this op-ed ran in the November 23, 2014 edition of Gulf News