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Opinion Week 22

Do "Genius Boys" Become "Brilliant Jerks"?

The label "genius" gets applied as early as middle school and can be used to excuse bad behavior. The workplace parallels are obvious.

The brilliant but abrasive genius is a Silicon Valley trope. Steve Jobs was probably the best-known of the species, but you could argue that peak brilliant jerkiness was reached with Uber’s Travis Kalanick (someone even wrote a play about it.).

The fact is: companies like Netflix, which openly state a zero-tolerance policy on brilliant jerks, are still the exception. Brilliant jerks are often rewarded in high tech, as in many other industries, with funding, promotions, and general immunity from company-mandated standards of behavior.

The why lies in the name itself. A “jerk” who is not “brilliant” is a plain old bad employee. But someone brilliant, a “genius,” must be retained at all costs, especially in an industry which prides itself on not letting anything stand in the way of innovation.

Leaving aside whether brilliant jerks are good for companies in the long run (evidence suggests they’re not), it’s time to re-examine the idea of genius in the business context. Research suggests that our perception of who is a genius and who is not is skewed. Starting very early, behaviors that signal genius in one person can signal something different for others, especially women and those from under-represented backgrounds.

The association of males-—usually white males—with genius runs deep and starts early. For example, recent research in higher-level middle school classrooms showed that white (and to a lesser extent, Asian) boys got a pass on disruptive behavior. In fact, their behavior was often excused because they were “geniuses.” 

The research suggests a self-reinforcing dynamic: Boys got a chance to speak more, because they were allowed to break the rules, because they were “intelligent” or “geniuses.” By breaking the rules, they got more air time and more experience articulating their ideas, giving them more confidence and more opportunities to impress the teacher. Meanwhile, the girls lost confidence and dialed back their participation, getting less air time and therefore less experience.

In the lower level classrooms, which had many more children of color, the dynamic was flipped. Girls tended to be labeled as “smart” (not geniuses, though), perhaps because they were more likely to focus on their work. Boys who acted out in the same way as boys in the higher-level classes, though, were described as disruptive.

The association of (usually white) men with genius carries over into the workplace. Professor Shelley Correll’s research on performance reviews suggests that men are more likely to be described with “standout adjectives” like “genius” or “visionary,” while women are more often praised for team accomplishments. And studies have confirmed that, in mixed-gender groups, women tend to speak less than their proportional representation. In a work environment that places a huge premium on genius, being smart just isn’t enough.

You have to wonder if some of those middle-school boys go on to become the brilliant jerks we’ve all experienced in our work lives. If they do, in some ways, it’s hard to blame them. If they’ve never been called on their behavior—indeed, if they’ve been told their whole lives that they’re exceptional and this is what exceptional people do—how would they know any better? 

This is why strong workplace norms and formal training on inclusive behavior is critical for companies trying to create work environments where everyone’s contribution is heard and valued. As for middle schools, perhaps it's time for a rethink on that "genius" label. 

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