From "Genius Culture" to "Growth Mindset Culture"

Silicon Valley culture is captivated by the genius of Steve Jobs.

This obsession blinds us to recent cautionary tales of perfect geniuses.

The scandal-hit Theranos warns us about the dangers of bowing down to the “genius culture.”

Elizabeth Holmes is a biotechnology entrepreneur who was convicted of fraud in connection to her blood-testing technology

Elizabeth Holmes was hailed as the next Steve Jobs.

People in Silicon Valley elevated the 19-year-old Stanford dropout to the status of a genius. On the back of few small wins, she convinced them that her $10 billion technology company performed sophisticated tests with just a drop of blood. She even invited then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden to tour the facility, and he praised it.

The only flaw in their nearly perfect gadget? It failed to work.

Theranos concealed major flaws in their portable device from regulators. Holmes pressured her team to fabricate results, presenting blood sample results from other medical labs as their own.

Holmes was sentenced to 11 years in prison.

The fixed mindset to achieve perfection, fuelled by the culture of genius, led to one of the biggest corporate fraud cases in history.

The rise and downfall of perfectionism

Society doesn’t view perfectionism as a problem.

Instead, it's seen as our favourite flaw.

Question: What's the most common response to a difficult job interview question asking about our flaws?

Answer: “I am a perfectionist.”

Thomas Curran, a psychology professor at the London School of Economics and author of The Perfection Trap, has extensively researched this topic. His data on 40,000 college students in the UK, USA, and Canada from 1989 to 2016 shows a significant rise in perfectionism.

Perfectionism Is Increasing, and That’s Not Good News (HBR Article by Thomas Curran and Andrew P. Hill)

Perfection contributes to the rise in anxiety and depression among young people.

At its core, Professor Thomas Curran asserts, this belief stems from a deficit mindset—a narrative that we are not good enough. We are constantly proving our competence, hyper-functionality, and flawlessness to others.

Starting from this deficit perspective, we see why perfectionism is problematic.

Deep down, we all know we are imperfect. Yet, in our daily interactions—amplified in our social media platforms—we conceal our shortcomings through impression management.

We become sensitive to mistakes, and when we fail publicly, our self-esteem plummets. Living with perfectionism is exhausting.

After all, the last thing a human needs is to be cast out from the tribe.

Inside the Microsoft Report

In 2012, a reporter interviewed current and former Microsoft employees.

Independently, all of them cited the company's most destructive practice as—stack ranking.

This system forced managers to rate employees against each other, ranking them on a scale from 1 to 5. In a team of 10, regardless of overall performance, 2 would receive positive reviews, 7 mediocre reviews, and 1 a terrible review.

You don't have to outrun the bear; you just have to outrun the slowest person.

In short, the bottom 10% of employees were always at risk of getting fired.

It doesn’t take a genius to see how this creates a toxic environment where cooperation and trust across teams are eroded.

Embracing the growth mindset culture

When Satya Nadella took over as CEO, Microsoft was struggling. Stock prices were falling, and innovation was stagnant.

The 'stack ranking' system meant that even achieving goals didn't guarantee job security. It encouraged undermining colleagues, withholding information, and gaming the system.

To illustrate the culture at Microsoft, Nadella showed his leadership team an image of famous cartoon characters all pointing guns at each other.

Carol Dweck, a psychologist known for her work on Growth Mindset highlights; “In a growth mindset, challenges are exciting rather than threatening.”

Satya Nadella, inspired by Professor Carol Dweck’s research, adopted this mindset as a blueprint to shift Microsoft to a growth culture.

Microsoft rolled out a new evaluation system to assess the growth opportunities managers provide and employees' responses to these opportunities. They also revamped the talent identification process, with the CEO and executive team sitting with senior leaders to discuss individuals with varied growth needs.

They provide resources to those who benefit from stretch goals and seek to do more. Recognising the need to support a diverse workforce, rather than fostering a culture of genius, was pivotal to their rebound.

Even though he is never hailed as a genius, Satya Nadella has made Microsoft 10 times more valuable in his first decade as CEO.

Leading the way in artificial intelligence, their investment in OpenAI—driving force behind ChatGPT—places them at the cutting edge of innovation.

From individual to collective growth mindsets

Over the past 15 years, studies on the growth mindset have revealed our capacity to form new brain connections and create neural pathways. The groundbreaking insight into neuroplasticity empowered individuals to learn skills they never believed they could.

However, as research has expanded on the growth mindset, results varied. Some studies replicated the initial effects, while others did not show significant results.

Does this mean growth mindsets don't exist?

Not at all.

Mary Murphy, a social psychologist and author of Cultures of Growth, shows that mindset transcends individuals. A ‘growth mindset culture’ can transform groups to achieve excellence while also empowering each individual to fulfil their growth potential.

Our ability to utilise the innate capacity for growth greatly depends on the people and context around us. It's a social endeavour—according to Professor Mary Murphy’s research. Even with a strong individual growth mindset, students and employees were stifled by a fixed-minded culture.

To unlock the benefits of growth mindsets, you must change the culture around the individual.


Pause and reflect:

  1. How can you move beyond the ‘genius culture’ to meet people where they are on their individual growth journey?
  2. How can you counter cultural forces that demands perfectionism from yourself and people around you?
  3. What insights can you adopt to promote collaboration over competition across diverse individuals?
  4. How can a ‘growth mindset culture’ drive innovation in your home or work environment?
  5. What changes can you make in your teams to support a culture of growth mindsets?


🎧 Hidden Brain Podcast - Innovation 2.0: Multiplying the Growth Mindset

🎧 Ten Percent Happier Podcast - The Science Of Overcoming Perfectionism | Thomas Curran

Vishal George is the author of Money Mindsets and Chief Behavioural Scientist at Behavioural by Design

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