Jack Dorsey (from Twitter, Square) sent this e-mail in 2012 about authority and merit. People should take it as corporate gospel.

You may have seen this already — if not, here’s what happened. Jack Dorsey, who co-founded Twitter and is now running things at Square (that little thing on top of iPads that you can swipe your credit card through, for the uninitiated), sent an e-mail to his team at Square back in 2012. He posted it online yesterday. The full message is at that link, but here’s the essence of it:

I’ve noticed a funny thing in the company. There’s been a high occurrence of folks using names, mine for instance, to push through an idea. “Jack really wants this to happen, Jack thinks this is an amazing idea, Jack said, etc.” This is obviously counter to the meritocracy/marketplace of ideas we want to build. Using someone else’s name to sell an idea does two things:

  1. It diminishes your authority.
  2. It diminishes the idea’s merit.

Simply: if you have to use someone else’s name or authority to get a point across, there is little merit to the point (you might not believe it yourself). If you believe in something to be correct, focus on showing your work to prove it. Authority derives naturally from merit, not the other way around.

There is really no way to explain how accurate this idea is. Look, hierarchy is tremendously important in several key respects — it gives people a sense or order and security (i.e. “I have to impress/work with these people, and the buck stops with those people”). That’s comforting, especially in tighter economic times with restricted margins at most organizations. But people often confuse hierarchy as a structural comfort with hierarchy as a justification for projects; those are totally different things. The people at the top should be setting direction, yes, but they should be operating at a “broader goals” level. If you set five broader goals, there are an infinite amount of ways to get from where you’re at to those five outcomes. Working at a job is a lot like Google Maps sometimes: if you want to drive from Chicago to Indianapolis, there’s a main way (the one most people would do and understand), and then there’s about six other ways you could do. In the end, people in all seven cars get to Indianapolis (admittedly at different times), so the goal is reached. That’s probably a bit of a lazy analogy, but the idea is similar to what Dorsey is saying: never use “Well, Mr. Big Shot XYZ wants it done this way, so …” (** trails off, end of conversation **) In that moment, your authority and the context of the idea have both taken a huge hit. You’re a foot soldier and you don’t innovate, you execute. Maybe that’s where you want to be, but … it probably isn’t beneficial for your career.

Others reflected on Dorsey’s e-mail, including here and here, and lest you think Dorsey’s advice is only limited to straight-up management tips, there’s also this from this week:

Seriously, though — authority comes from merit; merit doesn’t come simply from authority. If more people understood this, we might not have this problem. 

Ted Bauer