Evolving From A Top-Down Culture To A Meritocracy

There is an increasing awareness among CEOs, that the inability to adapt their business to the insanely high pace of change in today's world, is based on the fact that driving change in business requires a cultural change first.

My take on this is, that the inability to flexibly respond to change, lies first and foremost in the absence of a bottom-up feedback culture and the absence of a true meritocracy. In my experience, it's the number one thing you want to make sure is fully established across the board (pun intended). Some observations:

If you ask any leader at any company, they will say that feedback is something they have embedded in their processes.

Often, though, feedback is mostly used to correct behaviour, or in the context of some post mortem review of a project, or in annual performance reviews. These leaders may add, that they value feedback from associates, but in fact within their corporate culture, bottom-up feedback is unwanted and outright systematically suffocated. If that’s the case, the associates live in a toxic environment and these companies will lose their talent. In today's world, that means they will lose as a company eventually.

Now, top-down feedback has its place. It’s important - when well-intended - to guide the professional and personal development of associates and teams. But how do you really feel about receiving feedback from bottom-up?

How do you feel about candid, honest feedback to you as a manager, VP, CxO? How do you react when some associate three hierarchy levels below you tells you that you got it all wrong? Or that a policy you have put in place is stupid and useless? Or the way you have communicated some news has alienated some talent in a way that you haven’t foreseen? Or how your processes are slow and inefficient? If something like this were to happen in YOUR company culture, what would happen next?

Worst case: There are lots of corporate cultures out there, no matter the company size, in which such a feedback would get you fired on the spot for insolence.

I had the honour to witness and contribute to a corporate culture for many years, where bottom-up, candid feedback is seen as a precious gift. And it‘s encouraged and protected, right from the top. The people department tirelessly educates managers about it's importance, and especially focuses on new managers coming on board, who may have been taught the “old school” type of management, where “being right” or “knowing the answers” is a strictly hierarchical property.

Feedback is a precious gift . It doesn’t matter where it comes from, or whether you end up agreeing with it or not. Someone is giving you information - for free - about how they perceive your actions, ideas and behaviours. That someone is probably passionate about making your company successful, otherwise, why would they care to speak up? 

And here's why bottom-up feedback is often the door opener for letting innovation happen: Behind many of those feedbacks is a yet unspoken, precious idea that could lead to your next innovation or contribute in some other way to your survival as a business. Why would someone NOT allow that to happen freely?

Encouraging bottom-up feedback allows you to establish a meritocracy - letting the best idea win, no matter where it comes from. Why does it work?

It’s because of how the open culture attracts exceptional talent and provides them with perpetual opportunity to show it and help innovation. And that’s exactly the reason why bottom-up feedback and meritocracy must not be an exclusive right just for managers! It's has to be for everyone.

Innovation is everywhere. It’s not just about the big questions such as what is this year’s strategic priority, or which acquisition should we make (although that, too), what's the next break-though product idea... but it’s also in process innovation, small efficiency gains, ideas that enrich the culture, marketing ideas, etc. Which means that everyone has the potential to contribute and innovate in their domain. This is only possible if you establish a culture which insists on bottom-up feedback and lives meritocracy (among other very important values driving a winning culture). 

A prerequisite for innovation is the unconditional freedom and personal safety (for everyone) to challenge the status quo! 

Truly living any value is predicated on that everyone in your organization truly gets this, but that will not always be the case, no matter how hard you try. However, once the amount of people (especially managers) respecting these values have crossed a certain threshold, pure peer pressure may make some “old school” people re-think their ways. But it’s not guaranteed. 

That’s why defending a value based culture has to become a culture in itself. 

And it needs to start with the executive leader team. What are the chances of survival of a value based culture, if some mid-level managers get away with suppressing meritocracy, because their ego cannot cope with the prospect of someone else having had the better idea? What if there is nobody they have to answer to, who would say to them: “hold on, that’s not how we want to do things around here!”? 

Obviously that’s a rhetorical question.

Do we always succeed with establishing this cultural approach flawlessly in every corner of the corporation at all times? No, we don’t. But we seriously try, and try again, and get better at it every single time. It's a journey. And yet we see the benefits of it all the time.

If you’re a CEO, and deep inside you, you know that your company works entirely top down, and admittedly you are painfully aware that you have no strategy - an actual strategy - on how to encourage bottom-up feedback and establish and reward meritocracy, you need to re-create it from the ground up. Why?

If you don’t, then...

  • Actual talent will have no problem leaving you for the next best offer
  • You’ll never know and be able to leverage the genius of the people not in charge
  • You'll never know which managers are keeping crucial ideas suppressed, in order to protect their ego
  • You will continue to rely on just 1% of the brainpower in your organization, happily accepting to run almost blindfolded in a fast changing world. All the while smaller and more culturally open competitors are right now busy building a much smarter service or product, with the potential to seriously threaten or kill yours over time. While you could have prevented that.

In the world of fast-paced innovation in which we live in today - the fastest pace of innovation ever seen in history - you simply can’t afford to NOT fully leverage the entire potential of talent that you employ. And you won’t be able to do that without dedicating significant time and passion into building a culture which encourages and protects bottom-up feedback and meritocracy.