The 2017 Richard Beckhard Memorial Prize

The editors of MIT Sloan Management Review are pleased to announce the winner of this year’s Richard Beckhard Memorial Prize, awarded to the most outstanding MIT SMR article on planned change and organizational development published from fall 2015 through summer 2016.

This year’s Richard Beckhard Memorial Prize goes to the summer 2016 MIT SMR article by Emilio J. Castilla, “Achieving Meritocracy in the Workplace.”

In this article, the author offers important insights into how workplace meritocracies can be fostered, implemented, and sustained over time so that employees and job applicants are judged according to their efforts, skills, and performance regardless of race, gender, class, national origin, or sexual orientation. Despite the prevalence of merit-based reward policies in organizations in recent decades, demographic biases — both explicit and implicit — are still common. Why?

Castilla, the NTU Professor of Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management, found that managers who believe their organization has formal mechanisms to ensure meritocracy are more likely to display the biases that such systems are designed to forestall; the very belief that the organization is meritocratic may make it more likely that career decisions affecting individuals reflect bias. This counterintuitive finding could stem from a sense on the part of managers that when the company as a whole has policies in place to combat bias and promote meritocracy, they can be less mindful about their individual decisions — unintentionally leading them to make biased choices.

To counter what Castilla calls the “paradox of meritocracy,” he calls for greater organizational accountability and transparency. The article shows how both can be advanced in ways that counterbalance complacency and help ensure that the organization is operating as a true meritocracy.

The judges thought the article was well aligned with the thinking of Richard Beckhard, who knew that organizational change was often more complicated than it seemed. “Policies are not practices, and sometimes admirable policies lull organizational members into a state of false consciousness, assuming that good intentions mean good results,” the judges noted. “Castilla’s call for continuous monitoring and evaluation of the outcomes is very much in line with what Dick would have recommended.”

This year’s panel of judges consisted of distinguished members of the MIT Sloan School of Management faculty: Erwin H. Schell Professor of Management John Van Maanen, adjunct associate professor of operations Zeynep Ton, and retired senior lecturer Cyrus Gibson.