Metric vs. Merit

This isn’t a new topic for a lot of us, and I can’t take credit for the catchy title, but it’s something we can easily forget when we’re talking about who to recognize and why.

We’ve finished the administrative review and graded our staff for the next promotion or award, and one guy has all the points. He’s got checks in every block where everyone else has missed something. He has the answer to every question, and whoever wrote his package knows exactly what they’re doing. He’s the obvious winner when you look at the score sheet. In many cases, that’s the end of it. We make some copies of the metric and submit the winner. He looks great on paper, but here’s the thing I try to remind everyone: He treats his people poorly.

As a matter of fact, he treats everyone bad, even people who don’t work for him. He talks down to the cooks, he bullies his peers, and he grabs the opportunities he knows will make him look good on paper but doesn’t actually accomplish anything with them. The award in front of me is based on the hard work of all his people, but he’s not trying to recognize them. When I remind everyone of this, they all start nodding their heads, and each one has some story where they saw this guy treat a junior person like a second-class citizen.

Once all the scoring on paper is done, after the points have been tallied and the folders all closed, you really just have a good starting point. You’re not done with just the metric; now it’s time to talk about merit.

“But it’s easy. It’s done. We did the scoring and it’s decided,” you might say. And you could, but you run the risk of really screwing this up.

So, here we sit with a score sheet in our hands, and I do my best to take our tunnel vision off that sheet so we can move the rest of the discussion forward. Yes, we have the metric, but what’s the goal? 
What, not who, are we trying to reward as an organization, and who best reflects the boss’s philosophy? I don’t want the person with the best score, I want the best person.

And yes, this is where it gets tricky. It’s not easy if we focus on the individuals. Think more about the organization as a whole than the people you’re ranking.

– How does that person treat his peers?

– Does he make them successful?

– How many subordinates have become successful because of him?

– Is he positive, or does he bring people down?

– Is his department happy, or are all of his people miserable?

Consider this: The choice you make on who you’re about to promote or recognize as the employee of the quarter or year has to make sense to everyone else in the organization. When the boss is standing up there shaking a hand and getting pictures taken, the rest of the staff have the chance to come to one of two conclusions:

  1. Hey, they really got this right. The boss gets it, and he gets us. That was a great choice.


  1. Man, he chose that guy. The boss is clueless. I guess that’s what it takes to get ahead around here. This sucks, this place sucks, these people…

I think you get the point, and no, I’m not exaggerating.

And note that I’m talking about the boss. We do the rankings and make a recommendation, but even when we’re the ones fighting over it behind a closed door, the boss is the one standing in front of the whole crew to announce the winner. We need to think of the boss when we make these decions.

Don’t get me wrong. Sometimes it really is as easy as the metric being right and the merit matching. It happens quite a bit, but you need to consider the merit of each candidate before you step away from the table. More often than not, the points are really darn close. Something as simple as an online course can put one person over another in the metrics, and you need to discuss individual merit to make the right decision.

If you focus on just the metric and ignore merit, the people of merit will disengage from the organization until they can leave. When they do leave, they won’t have much nice to say, and good people will stop applying for vacant positions. A good organization can turn into shark tank a lot easier than I’d like to admit, and the active choice of what we reward, not who, can affect that within a year. Trust me, it’s painful to watch. Sooner or later, only the sharks will be left because that’s what you’ve rewarded.

So, bringing this back, how can we make this decision easier and put it in terms that we can all agree on? In my profession, it’s easy. We’re sitting at a table having some hard talks, right that minute, and the question really boils down to this: Which candidate do I want at this table with me making these hard choices next year?

I can tell you right now that the guy with all these points isn’t necessarily who I want at the table. I don’t need a guy with the perfect score. I want the man or woman who is balanced, who scores well and treats people well, who has a positive attitude, and makes these hard decisions a little easier. Most importantly, I want to be in a healthy organization where everyone realizes that performance and potential matter, and we value merit as much as the metric.

– Have you seen this go wrong, and how did it affect the organization?

– Who out there has had to make the hard decisions when metric and merit didn’t match?

Have a great week out there.

– JT

James Tinker

About James Tinker

James was born and raised in Bangor, and left home at 18 for the Navy. Twenty-five years later, he retired as a Command Master Chief, the highest enlisted rank on a warship in San Diego. His popular blog series, The Day Job, shares personal and professional lessons learned through his career.