Technology companies like Google, Inc. have often been lauded for being on the cutting edge of people management as well. Red Hat, the maker of open source software Linux, may be able to join that club, what with its bold ideas on driving engagement, making inclusive decisions and building a meritocracy.

In The Open Organization: Igniting Passion And Performance, Red Hat chief executive officer Jim Whitehurst talks about how work gets done at the firm, and gives industry examples to support the points he makes. In the chapter “Choosing Meritocracy, Not Democracy", for example, he spells out how hierarchy has little to do with influe-nce at Red Hat, and why that means a good engineer can turn down a managerial position and still grow in her job. Edited excerpts:

Within the meritocracy we have built at Red Hat, everyone has the right to speak and access the kinds of tools that will help ensure that his or her voice is heard. But to appreciate how a meritocracy works, you need to first recognize that not everyone is listened to equally. That is to say, everyone has an equal chance to be heard, but the meritocracy functions so that the collective helps empower and choose the leaders and influencers.

At most companies, everyone knows who the “A-players" or “superstars" are, even if their title doesn’t necessarily convey how much influence they have within the company. When I worked at BCG (Boston Consulting Group), we used the terms “thermometers" and “thermostats" to categorize people in an organization. Thermometers are people who reflect the temperature (hot, cold, or lukewarm) of the organization; the thermostats are the ones who set it. When it came time to create change in an organization, we knew we needed to get the thermostats on board to help drive those changes by setting a new temperature that would be quickly reflected by the thermometers.

The challenge for most companies, though, is that while everyone knows who the thermostats are, it’s very rare that anyone takes real advantage of his or her potential influence. The challenge and the opportunity for organizations, therefore, are to find ways to not just openly recognize the thought leaders, but also to leverage the thermostats to drive innovation and decision making forward.

An example of how we leverage our thermostats at Red Hat is Máirín Duffy, a user-interface designer. Duffy started working at Red Hat as an intern and later joined full-time in 2004 after she graduated from college. While Duffy has made exceptional contributions to the core Red Hat Enterprise Linux product, she has also earned a stellar reputation throughout the company for her contributions to memo-list conversations on everything from the creation of the mission statement to the adoption of certain controversial proprietary software programs.

In a case involving the latter, DeLisa Alexander, executive vice president and chief people officer at Red Hat, approached Duffy to talk about such a proposed project. “DeLisa approached me in person...because she knew from the memo-list how vocally I was against Red Hat using proprietary software," Duffy said. “She had caught wind of such a project and let me know about it, asked me what I thought, and supported my efforts to have it reconsidered. It eventually was and didn’t move forward then as planned. The people who take the initiative to make sure the right thing happens are the ones who end up winning the influence."

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A meritocracy also means that you don’t need people reporting to you to create change and get yourself heard—a notion that many organizations struggle with. Rebecca Fernandez, a senior employment branding specialist at Red Hat, explained it in her article “Building a positive meritocracy: It’s harder than it sounds"—Most people have experienced the Peter Principle in action: In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence. In other words, people are promoted so long as they excel. When they are promoted to a position where they lack competence, they stay there, unable to gain further promotion and unlikely to be demoted. This happens because upward mobility generally involves a move into management. The brilliant engineer becomes the bumbling manager... To create a positive meritocracy, we must re-envision management as a career track parallel to others (e.g., engineering or marketing), with overlap for some dual-skilled candidates.

At Red Hat, we address the dangers of the Peter Principle by offering ways for an individual to grow his or her scope and influence without having to change jobs. The people who are listened to have earned the respect of their peers, regardless of their position or role in the company. Because of that, associates can grow their role tremendously without being promoted up the hierarchy, by simply continuing to build their own credibility and leadership brand.

Reprinted by permission of the Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from The Open Organization by Jim Whitehurst. ©2015 Red Hat, Inc.

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