Engineers like to believe in the idea of meritocracy. We want to believe that the best idea wins, that the person who produces the most value is rewarded, that we judge only on what a person brings to the table and nothing more.
Nothing could be further from the truth, of course, because we are ultimately human, and humans are biased in many ways both subtle and not. This post is not going to attempt to educate you on human bias. If you're unfamiliar with this concept, I'd welcome you to watch this talk put together by Google on the realities of bias in the workplace and efforts you can take to combat this.
Now, all that being said, I love the idea of meritocracy. After all, I am a CTO, surely I am here mostly due to my merit! OK, even ignoring my own position, I would really like to create an organization that does behave in a meritocratic fashion. I don't want to say that someone has to have X years of experience to do something, or Y arbitrary title. I want to reward people who show up, take on big tasks, and produce great results.
The most common way that people at startups attempt to create meritocratic environments, to avoid this title-driven fake hierarchy, is to eschew titles entirely. Eschew titles, have "flat" organizations. Removing the trappings of hierarchy will mean that we are all equals, and will create a place where the best idea wins, right?
Removing titles and pretending that the hierarchy doesn't exist does exactly the opposite of creating a meritocracy. It most often creates a self-reinforcing system where shadow hierarchies rule the day and those outside the in-group have even less opportunity to see their ideas come to life. It frustrates newcomers, and alienates diverse opinions. It is, in short, the enemy of meritocracy.
What is a poor meritocratic-seeking engineering leader to do?
The only answer I have found is echoed in the video I linked above. Far from eschewing titles and pretending no hierarchy exist, you must acknowledge this reality. And, furthermore, you need to be really, really explicit about what it means to actually be working at the level indicated by these titles. You need to first, make it really clear to yourself what is required at every level, and then make it really clear to your team what it means to be at every level.
This is not easy to do. My greatest fear in implementing this has been the fear that people will come to me and try to "lawyerball" me into promoting them to a level that I don't feel they are working at. Or that people will become obsessed with their title and constantly be trying to get promoted and treating each other differently due to titles.
To point 1, though, if a person truly is meeting everything I have laid out as being necessary for working at a level, why would I not want to promote them to that level? It either means that I haven't really articulated the level clearly enough to really encompass the responsibilities, or in fact, they really deserve to be promoted and I am letting my bias get in the way of evaluating merit.
To point 2, if I lay out levels that I believe are genuinely increasing in impact and responsibility and have high bars to clear, why would I be upset if people strive and work hard to grow into them? "Meritocracy" doesn't mean "Only reward people who are naturally gifted at what I value." That's the thing I'm trying to stop doing!
On treating each other differently due to titles, well, that's a two part problem. The first part is this: creating a culture where ideas are welcome from anywhere requires cultivation with or without titles. The second is that generally people get promoted because they have shown bigger impact and influence on the organization, and so it's not that surprising that they will have bigger voices. I'm not sure that is a terrible thing, if those people are living up to the high standards that come with that influence.
Finally, of course, to get a group to embrace this is tough. So why not take the decision-making power to promote people out of the hands of managers? That is what we have done in my team. We now use promotion committees, composed of engineers at a level or two above the person trying to get promoted. Now the whole team is bought into the idea that promoting someone is not a gift bestowed by management but an acknowledgement by a group of peers that one should join their ranks.
This is not going to be perfect, and it is a lot of work for me to implement. But in my experience taking the time to establish clarity in anything is a worthwhile exercise, and creates a better and ultimately more efficient organization.