Not a Blank Slate: How Managers Come to Define and Approach the Evaluation of Merit

Not a Blank Slate: How Managers Come to Define and Approach the Evaluation of Merit

By Emilio Castilla, Aruna Ranganathan
January 2018Working Paper No. 3721

Merit is increasingly guiding employee decision-making in the corporate world. Yet little is known about how managers come to define merit and approach the evaluation of merit. We address this gap by offering a process model of merit that identifies the antecedents of managerial understandings of merit. Interviews and qualitative review data from a diverse sample of managers and from managers at a U.S. technology company initially revealed that merit is not a uniformly defined concept. We found that managers’ personal definitions of merit varied along three dimensions: what, how, and who is being evaluated. Our analysis then identified two clusters in managers’ definitions of merit, which in turn map onto two distinct approaches to evaluating merit: a specific approach in which employees’ work actions are evaluated objectively and at an individual level, and a broad approach in which employees’ work actions and personal qualities are evaluated objectively and subjectively, both individually and as part of a team. Subsequently, our process model traces managers’ personal definitions of merit to their own prior experiences as employees subject to evaluation. Finally, our evidence suggests that as a result of their past experiences as subjects of evaluation, female and racial-minority managers are more likely than white male managers to adopt a specific approach to evaluating merit. Our study contributes to the growing organizational literature on merit by showing that managers are not blank slates: How managers define merit depends on their own early-career experiences as employees, which ultimately shape their approaches to evaluating merit later when they become managers.