Most of the breakthrough discoveries and remarkable inventions throughout history, from flints for starting a fire to self-driving cars, have something in common: They are the result of curiosity. The impulse to seek new information and experiences and explore novel possibilities is a basic human attribute. New research points to three important insights about curiosity as it relates to business. First, curiosity is much more important to an enterprise’s performance than was previously thought. That’s because cultivating it at all levels helps leaders and their employees adapt to uncertain market conditions and external pressures: When our curiosity is triggered, we think more deeply and rationally about decisions and come up with more-creative solutions. In addition, curiosity allows leaders to gain more respect from their followers and inspires employees to develop more-trusting and more-collaborative relationships with colleagues.
Second, by making small changes to the design of their organizations and the ways they manage their employees, leaders can encourage curiosity—and improve their companies. This is true in every industry and for creative and routine work alike.
Third, although leaders might say they treasure inquisitive minds, in fact most stifle curiosity, fearing it will increase risk and inefficiency. In a survey I conducted of more than 3,000 employees from a wide range of firms and industries, only about 24% reported feeling curious in their jobs on a regular basis, and about 70% said they face barriers to asking more questions at work.
In this article I’ll elaborate on the benefits of and common barriers to curiosity in the workplace and then offer five strategies that can help leaders get high returns on investments in employees’ curiosity and in their own.
The Benefits of Curiosity
New research reveals a wide range of benefits for organizations, leaders, and employees.
Fewer decision-making errors.
In my research I found that when our curiosity is triggered, we are less likely to fall prey to confirmation bias (looking for information that supports our beliefs rather than for evidence suggesting we are wrong) and to stereotyping people (making broad judgments, such as that women or minorities don’t make good leaders). Curiosity has these positive effects because it leads us to generate alternatives.
More innovation and positive changes in both creative and noncreative jobs.
Consider this example: In a field study INSEAD’s Spencer Harrison and colleagues asked artisans selling their goods through an e-commerce website several questions aimed at assessing the curiosity they experience at work. After that, the participants’ creativity was measured by the number of items they created and listed over a two-week period. A one-unit increase in curiosity (for instance, a score of 6 rather than 5 on a 7-point scale) was associated with 34% greater creativity.
In a separate study, Harrison and his colleagues focused on call centers, where jobs tend to be highly structured and turnover is generally high. They asked incoming hires at 10 organizations to complete a survey that, among other things, measured their curiosity before they began their new jobs. Four weeks in, the employees were surveyed about various aspects of their work. The results showed that the most curious employees sought the most information from coworkers, and the information helped them in their jobs—for instance, it boosted their creativity in addressing customers’ concerns.
My own research confirms that encouraging people to be curious generates workplace improvements. For one study I recruited about 200 employees working in various companies and industries. Twice a week for four weeks, half of them received a text message at the start of their workday that read, “What is one topic or activity you are curious about today? What is one thing you usually take for granted that you want to ask about? Please make sure you ask a few ‘Why questions’ as you engage in your work throughout the day. Please set aside a few minutes to identify how you’ll approach your work today with these questions in mind.”
The other half (the control group) received a message designed to trigger reflection but not raise their curiosity: “What is one topic or activity you’ll engage in today? What is one thing you usually work on or do that you’ll also complete today? Please make sure you think about this as you engage in your work throughout the day. Please set aside a few minutes to identify how you’ll approach your work today with these questions in mind.”
After four weeks, the participants in the first group scored higher than the others on questions assessing their innovative behaviors at work, such as whether they had made constructive suggestions for implementing solutions to pressing organizational problems.
When we are curious, we view tough situations more creatively. Studies have found that curiosity is associated with less defensive reactions to stress and less aggressive reactions to provocation. We also perform better when we’re curious. In a study of 120 employees I found that natural curiosity was associated with better job performance, as evaluated by their direct bosses.
Reduced group conflict.
My research found that curiosity encourages members of a group to put themselves in one another’s shoes and take an interest in one another’s ideas rather than focus only on their own perspective. That causes them to work together more effectively and smoothly: Conflicts are less heated, and groups achieve better results.
More-open communication and better team performance.
Working with executives in a leadership program at Harvard Kennedy School, my colleagues and I divided participants into groups of five or six, had some groups participate in a task that heightened their curiosity, and then asked all the groups to engage in a simulation that tracked performance. The groups whose curiosity had been heightened performed better than the control groups because they shared information more openly and listened more carefully.
Two Barriers to Curiosity
Despite the well-established benefits of curiosity, organizations often discourage it. This is not because leaders don’t see its value. On the contrary, both leaders and employees understand that curiosity creates positive outcomes for their companies. In the survey of more than 3,000 employees mentioned earlier, 92% credited curious people with bringing new ideas into teams and organizations and viewed curiosity as a catalyst for job satisfaction, motivation, innovation, and high performance.
Yet executives’ actions often tell a different story. True, some organizations, including 3M and Facebook, give employees free time to pursue their interests, but they are rare. And even in such organizations, employees often have challenging short-term performance goals (such as meeting a quarterly sales target or launching a new product by a certain date) that consume the “free time” they could have spent exploring alternative approaches to their work or coming up with innovative ideas.
Two tendencies restrain leaders from encouraging curiosity:
They have the wrong mindset about exploration.
Leaders often think that letting employees follow their curiosity will lead to a costly mess. In a recent survey I conducted of 520 chief learning officers and chief talent development officers, I found that they often shy away from encouraging curiosity because they believe the company would be harder to manage if people were allowed to explore their own interests. They also believe that disagreements would arise and making and executing decisions would slow down, raising the cost of doing business. Research finds that although people list creativity as a goal, they frequently reject creative ideas when actually presented with them. That’s understandable: Exploration often involves questioning the status quo and doesn’t always produce useful information. But it also means not settling for the first possible solution—and so it often yields better remedies.
They seek efficiency to the detriment of exploration.
In the early 1900s Henry Ford focused all his efforts on one goal: reducing production costs to create a car for the masses. By 1908 he had realized that vision with the introduction of the Model T. Demand grew so high that by 1921 the company was producing 56% of all passenger cars in the United States—a remarkable success made possible primarily by the firm’s efficiency-centered model of work. But in the late 1920s, as the U.S. economy rose to new heights, consumers started wanting greater variety in their cars. While Ford remained fixated on improving the Model T, competitors such as General Motors started producing an array of models and soon captured the main share of the market. Owing to its single-minded focus on efficiency, Ford stopped experimenting and innovating and fell behind.
These leadership tendencies help explain why our curiosity usually declines the longer we’re in a job. In one survey, I asked about 250 people who had recently started working for various companies a series of questions designed to measure curiosity; six months later I administered a follow-up survey. Although initial levels of curiosity varied, after six months everyone’s curiosity had dropped, with the average decline exceeding 20%. Because people were under pressure to complete their work quickly, they had little time to ask questions about broad processes or overall goals.
To Be Continued... Tomorrow Read Five Ways to Bolster Curiosity