Leave The “Culture of Genius” Behind: Embrace a culture of collaboration

Much as Silicon Valley has struggled with a “unicorn” approach to funding — throwing money at startups in the slim hope that a billion-dollar IPO emerges — we also have a “culture of genius” problem that may be hampering our ability to achieve diversity in our ranks. Like the unicorn fallacy, the “culture of genius” mindset is based on unrealistic expectations.

So, what is the “culture of genius?” A recent TechCrunch article defined it as a “mindset [that] manifests as a culture that views brilliance as critical to success, and where some people are seen as inherently more brilliant than others.” It’s true that singular examples of genius can unleash astounding innovation, but requiring job applicants to adhere to a preconceived notion of genius can have the opposite effect.

To innovate and succeed in a highly competitive environment serving a worldwide marketplace requires creativity, transparency and balance — all attributes that are undermined by the “culture of genius” that prevails at many tech companies. Developing a culture that rewards creativity, transparency and balance is a more realistic and fruitful way to reach success in the tech sector.

In a “culture of genius” environment, people are expected to know everything already, and failure is not an option. That mindset actively hampers creativity because people are too afraid of making a mistake to take calculated risks. It makes more sense to foster a culture that encourages smart risk-taking. Let employees know it’s okay to make a mistake — as long as they don’t make the same mistake twice.

Transparency is another casualty in “culture of genius” workplaces: People are reluctant to share what they know or trust each other since they feel trapped in a cut-throat, zero-sum environment. But some of the most stunning examples of innovation come from collaborative efforts, which is why it’s better for companies to encourage employees to work together and share knowledge.

Work-life balance is also a value that “culture of genius” workplaces tend to disregard. While the single-minded workaholic stereotype of the inventor may prevail in Hollywood, in reality, lack of balance more often leads to early burnout and personal and professional unhappiness. People who are encouraged to stay connected with friends, families and hobbies are typically more dedicated and creative.

Companies in Silicon Valley and beyond would be better served by establishing a “culture of collaboration” that prioritizes creativity, transparency and balance. Not only does this approach foster innovation more effectively than a “culture of genius,” it helps businesses attract and retain a more diverse workforce, which can deliver a “diversity dividend.”

It starts with articulating corporate values and takes hold when the executive and management team “walks the talk,” modeling those principles so that everyone gets the message. For example, to encourage calculated risk-taking, executives can be upfront about the mistakes they’ve made, discussing why they chose to take a chance and what they learned from any failures along the way.

Transparency should also be modeled by executives and managers. Rather than individuals cultivating ideas in a vacuum, colleagues should share knowledge and skills, working together to develop new concepts. Everyone should be on the same page regarding the company’s objectives, understanding their role in achieving them and receiving encouragement to work as a team.

And finally, company leaders have an important role to play in modeling balance. By recognizing employees as whole human beings with family and friends as well as personal interests outside the workplace, leaders send a signal that they value diversity and inclusion, that they see employees as more than interchangeable cogs in a machine.

The organizations that succeed in the 21st century will be those that are flexible and responsive to change. That requires the ability to understand the needs of an increasingly diverse client base and respond agilely to global market changes. Diversity is a requirement in that environment, not an option. So it’s time to leave the “culture of genius” behind and embrace a more creative, transparent and balanced approach.