Meritocracy and Worthiness in Conservation


Who is worthy?Who is worthy of leading the work in conservation? I have pondered this question since hearing a presentation about the myth of meritocracy by Edward Dugger III as part of the Center for Purposeful Leadership’s Essential Conversations series. This topic resonated with me because I have felt my own worth questioned in the field of conservation over the years.

In this post, I reflect on many stories and conversations from the past year related to worthiness and the myth of hard work. I hope, rather than serve as a judgment of the field, my words encourage a similar reflection on worthiness and meritocracy from my colleagues in conservation.

Who is worthy of promotion?

Dugger’s presentation was entitled “The Meritocracy Myth: What Happens to a Dream Deferred?” As I thought of a dream deferred, I recalled speaking to an African American man who left conservation after being continuously passed over for promotion. He told me about his amazing work in the field, including developing some unlikely and difficult partnerships. However, he was not considered worthy of promotion on several occasions, even though he met every criterion and had a wealth of experience. He questioned his own worth and decided to leave for a place that would appreciate his value. I recall this man saying that he could not understand why people he supervised and mentored were being promoted before him. I suspect that it is because there were not actually criteria to determine promotion. That has been my experience in the field in general and needs to change.

The book Inclusify suggests there must be radical transparency in how promotions are decided. One of the ways the book says to do this is to define criteria before assessing and share these criteria with everyone. What experiences and accomplishments will be assessed to demonstrate promotion? What interpersonal skills are required in the new position and at what level of practice? What personal experience might be able to replace any educational qualification? How can candidates be blindly yet fairly scored with no regard to demographics?

How does meritocracy influence hiring?

Inclusify also offers an online assessment to help leaders determine where they are in the Inclusify Leadership Matrix ™, which I use in The Power of Inclusion series. In one of the groups I facilitated, more than half of the participants scored high in Meritocracy Manager. The Meritocracy manager believes in the best person for the job. Dugger’s presentation reminded me of this data. I wonder how the question of worthiness would be handled in the group.

Because such a high proportion of people in authority have a meritocracy mindset, one of the first approaches I would take toward diversity and inclusion would be to examine hiring practices and job qualifications. Organizations should consider applying a “worthiness lens” to their hiring process. Start by asking: are all these qualifications necessary, or just geared to attract the people we already have in place?

If I lead an agency, I would also take a hard look at where job announcements are sent. Are we missing places for finding recruits because they have been deemed unworthy? I would commit to sending to a minimum number of places that are “non-traditional” and offer resume and application services to those not familiar with the system. As above, I would also check into criteria setting for promotions.

Am I worthy?

I am not immune to Meritocracy, as I also scored high in Meritocracy Manger from the Inclusify assessment. As I read this portion of the book, I struggled with questioning meritocracy because I admit to believing hard work leads to success. I wondered: what is wrong with wanting to hire the “best person?” I have worked ridiculously hard to get where I am. Dugger challenged that notion for me as he spoke about worthiness.

Dugger told us his story of a Harvard graduate who dropped by his all-black high school and asked to speak to the top three students in the class. From that conversation, Dugger was offered the opportunity to attend Harvard University. The Harvard graduate decided Dugger’s school was worthy of a visit and that Dugger deserved a recommendation to attend Harvard; privilege was shared with another found to be worthy. Dugger’s story would be vastly different without the Harvard graduate’s determination of worthiness.

This reminded me of my own worthiness in question when I applied for an early career position. I had applied for and was fully qualified for a position. I made the final cut of three; myself and two men. When the others bowed out for distinct reasons, I was told the organization planned to start the process over. I had been deemed unworthy, even though I had met every criterion and interviewed well enough to make the final cut. I questioned the process, decided gender discrimination may be at play, and eventually called the union to question the decision. I was promptly offered the job and then asked by my supervisor’s supervisor, if after all that, I still wanted the job. 

Who is worthy of leading?

In a recent workshop on Regenerative Leadership, I recall a female leader talking about feeling like she did not belong in the agency. She did not grow up hunting and as a result, often felt discounted in her work within the agency. Her story made me think: if relevancy is the main concern for conservation organizations, isn’t she the EXACT person most qualified for the position? She supports hunting but did not grow up experiencing it. She has first-hand knowledge of the questions a new hunter might ask and/or the barriers they might face. She can speak in the reality of the present, rather than from a distant past.

I was reminded of my privilege seeing the first female commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Sarah Strommen, take office in 2019. In her inaugural speech during the MN DNR Roundtable that January, Strommen spoke about her internal debate to mention being the first female in the office. She was abundantly qualified regardless of gender. She also knows that a position like this feels impossible to reach until it happens. Through personal conversations with Strommen, I know she does her best to support the work of conservation, and yet, I sense the barriers she also faces as a woman in the field. I feel the weight she bears as the first female in that position. I do not doubt her worthiness, but I assume many do just because of her gender.

So, who is most valuable at the highest levels of authority to help the agency become more relevant? What experiences provide the most insight for helping the agency become more relevant? What level of participation is required in all the activities promoted by the agency, not just hunting and fishing?

Who is worthy to provide guidance?

Since 2018, I have served on the Recruitment, Retention, and Reactivation Council of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in hopes to help my home agency be more relevant. I helped develop the first national plan for this effort, so felt an urge to stay involved. While I appreciated that many of the council members were chosen via blind application (essay-style with names and organizations removed), there was still little diversity. Many of the same types of people were in the room, including representatives from the state’s oldest state conservation organizations. I am not saying they should not be in the room. I am saying we need to balance it out with more robust and diverse voices.

Frequently, I have suggested putting new hunters, especially from more diverse cultural backgrounds, in a room to ask them about their experiences getting into hunting and fishing. Find out what they considered to be barriers, what was easy and welcoming, and how they would advise leadership. The committee, especially the “traditionalist”, should sit back and listen with curiosity, providing no input whatsoever. Even though I came to hunting as an adult, I believe there are more diverse voices than mine that could contribute to the field.

In fact, I have suggested that unless the committee is more diverse, then I am suspicious of its value at all. If diversity is part of the need to grow conservation’s relevancy, then shouldn’t those advising the agency come from more diverse communities? Aren’t the experiences of the “non-traditional’ going to provide significantly more information on how to recruit new audiences and be more relevant? Who is a worthy voice of guidance?

Where can I fight meritocracy in my work?

I will continue to struggle with meritocracy and worthiness and how to provide opportunities to others who are also worthy. I must promote my own work and business, so I have concerns about what I must give up. On several occasions this past year, I have connected some diverse contacts with potential projects. I have questioned meritocracy in another project and been shut down. This is not easy work and can feel exhausting at times. I must remind myself that this is how more marginalized communities feel all the time.

The Center for Purposeful Leadership is one of the communities where I go for energy and a broader perspective. I thank them for their courageous conversation around meritocracy and worthiness. I pass on the questions Mr. Dugger asked us to ponder as you consider your own work.

Who is worthy?
How do we define worthiness?
How do we see it, once we define it?

More on Edward Dugger III:

Written by: Michelle Doerr


Tags: #diversity and inclusion #meritocracy #worthiness
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