Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Senators' Sons Problem

Imagine you have to take a test in a room along with 50 other people. I will administer the test, and it will be objective – perhaps just straightforward math problems – and I will grade it anonymously. A very valuable prize goes to each test taker who makes it into the top 5% among the people taking the exam, silently and independently, in the same room with you. You do have a choice, however. You can take the exam in either of two identical rooms, each of which contains the same number of test takers. The only difference between the rooms is the criterion used to select the other test takers. Individuals chosen based on academic merit are in one room. The other room is filled with senators’ sons. Against which group would you prefer to compete?

I have noticed that people prefer to compete against the senators’ sons. Presumably, privileged though they may be, the senators' sons are easier rivals than a group chosen according to their ability. People seem to feel uncomfortable giving this answer in a public setting, perhaps because someone there might be a senator’s son and could take offense (although he may not understand the insult). But keep in mind that we prefer to compete against the senators’ sons not because we think that they all are weak performers. Any one senator's son might be quite sharp. Rather, our intuition is that the privileged group is weaker on average than the average of the merit-based group. This is the senators’ sons problem: Privilege and merit sometimes are negatively correlated. But why?

Behind the senators sons’ problem is a process known as “selection”. In most contests, you have to qualify in order to play – as when people try to get into a school or a company, or when firms vie to get into markets or to do business in different countries. Criteria have to be set up to select who gets into these contests and who does not. When merit is the criterion, those who play must be capable. When some other criterion is used, such as privilege (as in the case of senators’ sons), then for them being capable is optional. And when merit is optional, average levels of merit will be lower.

In life, both merit and privilege together decide who gets to play. If you lack privilege, you better be good. If you lack merit, but are well connected, then you may be able to play too. In situations like this, merit and privilege are negatively correlated: The senators’ sons problem. So if you see someone succeed despite lacking connections, club memberships, and fancy titles, they must be good at what they do. Similarly, if a foreign company excels despite government policies favoring domestic firms, then the foreign firm must be impressive. The same process happens in entrepreneurship, too. Big, established firms rely on their reputation to get business, while start-ups have to prove that they are capable. Consequently, most start-ups fail; those that survive are then especially competitive. In each of these examples, those who make it without privilege had to be good.

I think we all realize that the senators’ sons problem is at work in many areas of life, which is why so many people try to deny their own privileged backgrounds. How we all wish we were a “self-made man." People who claim this are really wanting to say “I’m no senator’s son.” After all, if we got ahead without privilege, then we must be really capable.

So here is the question for you and your organization. How much do you rely on privilege to win in your markets? How much of your performance is based on merit? And, inside your organization, do you reward privilege or merit? In my view, great leaders build companies that win on merit - and inside their firms create systems that reward merit.

For an academic study showing how this idea plays a role in competition, see my paper on compensatory fitness.