Talent Zoo

Awesome Jobs, Great Companies, & Hot Talent
menu button
Bookmark and Share
June 12, 2019
Why You Should Encourage Curiosity at the Office (Part 2)
 
Continued from yesterday.


Five Ways to Bolster Curiosity


It takes thought and discipline to stop stifling curiosity and start fostering it. Here are five strategies leaders can employ.


1. Hire for curiosity.


In 2004 an anonymous billboard appeared on Highway 101, in the heart of Silicon Valley, posing this puzzle: “{first 10-digit prime found in consecutive digits of e}.com.” The answer, 7427466391.com, led the curious online, where they found another equation to solve. The handful of people who did so were invited to submit a résumé to Google. The company took this unusual approach to finding job candidates because it places a premium on curiosity. (People didn’t even need to be engineers!) As Eric Schmidt, Google’s CEO from 2001 to 2011, has said, “We run this company on questions, not answers.”


Google also identifies naturally curious people through interview questions such as these: “Have you ever found yourself unable to stop learning something you’ve never encountered before? Why? What kept you persistent?” The answers usually highlight either a specific purpose driving the candidate’s inquiry (“It was my job to find the answer”) or genuine curiosity (“I just had to figure out the answer”).


IDEO, the design and consulting company, seeks to hire “T-shaped” employees: people with deep skills that allow them to contribute to the creative process (the vertical stroke of the T) and a predisposition for collaboration across disciplines, a quality requiring empathy and curiosity (the horizontal stroke of the T). The firm understands that empathy and curiosity are related: Empathy allows employees to listen thoughtfully and see problems or decisions from another person’s perspective, while curiosity extends to interest in other people’s disciplines, so much so that one may start to practice them. And it recognizes that most people perform at their best not because they’re specialists but because their deep skill is accompanied by an intellectual curiosity that leads them to ask questions, explore, and collaborate.


To identify potential employees who are T-shaped, IDEO pays attention to how candidates talk about past projects. Someone who focuses only on his or her own contributions may lack the breadth to appreciate collaboration. T-shaped candidates are more likely to talk about how they succeeded with the help of others and to express interest in working collaboratively on future projects.


To assess curiosity, employers can also ask candidates about their interests outside of work. Reading books unrelated to one’s own field and exploring questions just for the sake of knowing the answers are indications of curiosity. And companies can administer curiosity assessments, which have been validated in a myriad of studies. These generally measure whether people explore things they don’t know, analyze data to uncover new ideas, read widely beyond their field, have diverse interests outside work, and are excited by learning opportunities.


It’s also important to remember that the questions candidates ask—not just the answers they provide—can signal curiosity. For instance, people who want to know about aspects of the organization that aren’t directly related to the job at hand probably have more natural curiosity than people who ask only about the role they would perform.


2. Model inquisitiveness.


Leaders can encourage curiosity throughout their organizations by being inquisitive themselves. In 2000, when Greg Dyke had been named director general of the BBC but hadn’t yet assumed the position, he spent five months visiting the BBC’s major locations, assembling the staff at each stop. Employees expected a long presentation but instead got a simple question: “What is the one thing I should do to make things better for you?” Dyke would listen carefully and then ask, “What is the one thing I should do to make things better for our viewers and listeners?”


The BBC’s employees respected their new boss for taking the time to ask questions and listen. Dyke used their responses to inform his thinking about the changes needed to solve problems facing the BBC and to identify what to work on first. After officially taking the reins, he gave a speech to the staff that reflected what he had learned and showed employees that he had been truly interested in what they said.


By asking questions and genuinely listening to the responses, Dyke modeled the importance of those behaviors. He also highlighted the fact that when we are exploring new terrain, listening is as important as talking: It helps us fill gaps in our knowledge and identify other questions to investigate.


That may seem intuitive, but my research shows that we often prefer to talk rather than to listen with curiosity. For instance, when I asked some 230 high-level leaders in executive education classes what they would do if confronted with an organizational crisis stemming from both financial and cultural issues, most said they would take action: move to stop the financial bleeding and introduce initiatives to refresh the culture. Only a few said they would ask questions rather than simply impose their ideas on others. Management books commonly encourage leaders assuming new positions to communicate their vision from the start rather than ask employees how they can be most helpful. It’s bad advice.


Why do we refrain from asking questions? Because we fear we’ll be judged incompetent, indecisive, or unintelligent. Plus, time is precious, and we don’t want to bother people. Experience and expertise exacerbate the problem: As people climb the organizational ladder, they think they have less to learn. Leaders also tend to believe they’re expected to talk and provide answers, not ask questions.


Such fears and beliefs are misplaced, my recent research shows. When we demonstrate curiosity about others by asking questions, people like us more and view us as more competent, and the heightened trust makes our relationships more interesting and intimate. By asking questions, we promote more-meaningful connections and more-creative outcomes.


Another way leaders can model curiosity is by acknowledging when they don’t know the answer; that makes it clear that it’s OK to be guided by curiosity. Patricia Fili-Krushel told me that when she joined WebMD Health as chief executive, she met with a group of male engineers in Silicon Valley. They were doubtful that she could add value to their work and, right off the bat, asked what she knew about engineering. Without hesitation, Fili-Krushel made a zero with her fingers. “This is how much I know about engineering,” she told them. “However, I do know how to run businesses, and I’m hoping you can teach me what I need to know about your world.” When leaders concede that they don’t have the answer to a question, they show that they value the process of looking for answers and motivate others to explore as well.


New hires at Pixar Animation Studios are often hesitant to question the status quo, given the company’s track record of hit movies and the brilliant work of those who have been there for years. To combat that tendency, Ed Catmull, the cofounder and president, makes a point of talking about times when Pixar made bad choices. Like all other organizations, he says, Pixar is not perfect, and it needs fresh eyes to spot opportunities for improvement (see “How Pixar Fosters Collective Creativity,” HBR, September 2008). In this way Catmull gives new recruits license to question existing practices. Recognizing the limits of our own knowledge and skills sends a powerful signal to others.


Tenelle Porter, a postdoctoral scholar in psychology at the University of California, Davis, describes intellectual humility as the ability to acknowledge that what we know is sharply limited. As her research demonstrates, higher levels of intellectual humility are associated with a greater willingness to consider views other than our own. People with more intellectual humility also do better in school and at work. Why? When we accept that our own knowledge is finite, we are more apt to see that the world is always changing and that the future will diverge from the present. By embracing this insight, leaders and employees can begin to recognize the power of exploration.


Finally, leaders can model inquisitiveness by approaching the unknown with curiosity rather than judgment. Bob Langer, who heads one of MIT’s most productive laboratories, told me recently that this principle guides how he manages his staff. As human beings, we all feel an urge to evaluate others—often not positively. We’re quick to judge their ideas, behaviors, and perspectives, even when those relate to things that haven’t been tried before. Langer avoids this trap by raising questions about others’ ideas, which leads people to think more deeply about their perspective and to remain curious about the tough problems they are trying to tackle. In doing so, he is modeling behavior that he expects of others in the lab.


3. Emphasize learning goals.


When I asked Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger how he was able to land a commercial aircraft safely in the Hudson River, he described his passion for continuous learning. Although commercial flights are almost always routine, every time his plane pushed back from the gate he would remind himself that he needed to be prepared for the unexpected. “What can I learn?” he would think. When the unexpected came to pass, on a cold January day in 2009, Sully was able to ask himself what he could do, given the available options, and come up with a creative solution. He successfully fought the tendency to grasp for the most obvious option (landing at the nearest airport). Especially when under pressure, we narrow in on what immediately seems the best course of action. But those who are passionate about continuous learning contemplate a wide range of options and perspectives. As the accident report shows, Sully carefully considered several alternatives in the 208 seconds between his discovery that the aircraft’s engines lacked thrust and his landing of the plane in the Hudson.


It’s natural to concentrate on results, especially in the face of tough challenges. But focusing on learning is generally more beneficial to us and our organizations, as some landmark studies show. For example, when U.S. Air Force personnel were given a demanding goal for the number of planes to be landed in a set time frame, their performance decreased. Similarly, in a study led by Southern Methodist University’s Don VandeWalle, sales professionals who were naturally focused on performance goals, such as meeting their targets and being seen by colleagues as good at their jobs, did worse during a promotion of a product (a piece of medical equipment priced at about $5,400) than reps who were naturally focused on learning goals, such as exploring how to be a better salesperson. That cost them, because the company awarded a bonus of $300 for each unit sold.


A body of research demonstrates that framing work around learning goals (developing competence, acquiring skills, mastering new situations, and so on) rather than performance goals (hitting targets, proving our competence, impressing others) boosts motivation. And when motivated by learning goals, we acquire more-diverse skills, do better at work, get higher grades in college, do better on problem-solving tasks, and receive higher ratings after training. Unfortunately, organizations often prioritize performance goals.


Leaders can help employees adopt a learning mindset by communicating the importance of learning and by rewarding people not only for their performance but for the learning needed to get there. Deloitte took this path: In 2013 it replaced its performance management system with one that tracks both learning and performance. Employees meet regularly with a coach to discuss their development and learning along with the support they need to continually grow.


Leaders can also stress the value of learning by reacting positively to ideas that may be mediocre in themselves but could be springboards to better ones. Writers and directors at Pixar are trained in a technique called “plussing,” which involves building on ideas without using judgmental language. Instead of rejecting a sketch, for example, a director might find a starting point by saying, “I like Woody’s eyes, and what if we…?” Someone else might jump in with another “plus.” This technique allows people to remain curious, listen actively, respect the ideas of others, and contribute their own. By promoting a process that allows all sorts of ideas to be explored, leaders send a clear message that learning is a key goal even if it doesn’t always lead to success.


4. Let employees explore and broaden their interests.


Organizations can foster curiosity by giving employees time and resources to explore their interests. One of my favorite examples comes from my native country. It involves Italy’s first typewriter factory, Olivetti, founded in 1908 in the foothills of the Italian Alps. In the 1930s some employees caught a coworker leaving the factory with a bag full of iron pieces and machinery. They accused him of stealing and asked the company to fire him. The worker told the CEO, Adriano Olivetti, that he was taking the parts home to work on a new machine over the weekend because he didn’t have time while performing his regular job. Instead of firing him, Olivetti gave him time to create the machine and charged him with overseeing its production. The result was Divisumma, the first electronic calculator. Divisumma sold well worldwide in the 1950s and 1960s, and Olivetti promoted the worker to technical director. Unlike leaders who would have shown him the door, Olivetti gave him the space to explore his curiosity, with remarkable results.


Some organizations provide resources to support employees’ outside interests. Since 1996 the manufacturing conglomerate United Technologies (UTC) has given as much as $12,000 in tuition annually to any employee seeking a degree part-time—no strings attached. Leaders often don’t want to invest in training employees for fear that they will jump to a competitor and take their expensively acquired skills with them. Even though UTC hasn’t tried to quantify the benefits of its tuition reimbursement program, Gail Jackson, the vice president of human resources when we spoke, believes in the importance of curious employees. “It’s better to train and have them leave than not to train and have them stay,” she told me. But according to the Society for Human Resource Management’s 2017 employee benefits report, only 44% of organizations provide or support cross-training to develop skills not directly related to workers’ jobs.


Leaders might provide opportunities for employees to travel to unfamiliar locales. When we have chances to expand our interests, research has found, we not only remain curious but also become more confident about what we can accomplish and more successful at work. Employees can “travel” to other roles and areas of the organization to gain a broader perspective. At Pixar, employees across the organization can provide “notes”—questions and advice—that help directors consider all sorts of possibilities for the movies they are working on.


Employees can also broaden their interests by broadening their networks. Curious people often end up being star performers thanks to their diverse networks, my research with the University of Toronto’s Tiziana Casciaro, Bill McEvily, and Evelyn Zhang finds. Because they’re more comfortable than others asking questions, such people more easily create and nurture ties at work—and those ties are critical to their career development and success. The organization benefits when employees are connected to people who can help them with challenges and motivate them to go the extra mile. MIT’s Bob Langer works to raise curiosity in his students by introducing them to experts in his network. Similarly, by connecting people across organizational departments and units, leaders can encourage employees to be curious about their colleagues’ work and ways of doing business.


Deliberate thinking about workspaces can broaden networks and encourage the cross-pollination of ideas. In the 1990s, when Pixar was designing a new home for itself in Emeryville, across the bay from San Francisco, the initial plans called for a separate building for each department. But then-owner Steve Jobs had concerns about isolating the various departments and decided to build a single structure with a large atrium in the center, containing employee mailboxes, a café, a gift shop, and screening rooms. Forcing employees to interact, he reasoned, would expose them to one another’s work and ideas.


Leaders can also boost employees’ curiosity by carefully designing their teams. Consider Massimo Bottura, the owner of Osteria Francescana, a three-Michelin-star restaurant in Modena, Italy, that was rated the Best Restaurant in the World in 2016 and 2018. His sous chefs are Davide di Fabio, from Italy, and Kondo Takahiko, from Japan. The two differ not only in their origins but also in their strengths: Di Fabio is more comfortable with improvisation, while Takahiko is obsessed with precision. Such “collisions” make the kitchen more innovative, Bottura believes, and inspire curiosity in other workers.


5. Have “Why?” “What if…?” and “How might we…?” days.


The inspiration for the Polaroid instant camera was a three-year-old’s question. Inventor Edwin Land’s daughter was impatient to see a photo her father had just snapped. When he explained that the film had to be processed, she wondered aloud, “Why do we have to wait for the picture?”


As every parent knows, Why? is ubiquitous in the vocabulary of young children, who have an insatiable need to understand the world around them. They aren’t afraid to ask questions, and they don’t worry about whether others believe they should already know the answers. But as children grow older, self-consciousness creeps in, along with the desire to appear confident and demonstrate expertise. By the time we’re adults, we often suppress our curiosity.


Leaders can help draw out our innate curiosity. One company I visited asked all employees for “What if…?” and “How might we…?” questions about the firm’s goals and plans. They came up with all sorts of things, which were discussed and evaluated. As a concrete sign that questioning was supported and rewarded, the best questions were displayed on banners hung on the walls. Some of the questions led employees to suggest ideas for how to work more effectively. (For more on the importance of asking good questions before seeking solutions, see “Better Brainstorming,” HBR, March–April 2018.)


In one study, my colleagues and I asked adults working in a wide range of jobs and industries to read one of two sets of materials on three organizational elements: goals, roles, and how organizations as a whole work together. For half the workers, the information was presented as the “grow method”—our version of a control condition. We encouraged that group to view those elements as immutable, and we stressed the importance of following existing processes that managers had already defined. For the other half, the information was presented as the “go back method.” We encouraged those employees to see the elements as fluid and to “go back” and rethink them. A week later we found that the workers who’d read about the “go back method” showed more creativity in tasks than the workers in the “grow method” group. They were more open to others’ ideas and worked more effectively with one another.


To encourage curiosity, leaders should also teach employees how to ask good questions. Bob Langer has said he wants to “help people make the transition from giving good answers to asking good questions” (see “The Edison of Medicine,” HBR, March–April 2017). He also tells his students that they could change the world, thus boosting the curiosity they need to tackle challenging problems.


Organizing “Why?” days, when employees are encouraged to ask that question if facing a challenge, can go a long way toward fostering curiosity. Intellectual Ventures, a company that generates inventions and buys and licenses patents, organizes “invention sessions” in which people from different disciplines, backgrounds, and levels of expertise come together to discuss potential solutions to tough problems, which helps them consider issues from various angles (see “Funding Eureka!” HBR, March 2010). Similarly, under Toyota’s 5 Whys approach, employees are asked to investigate problems by asking Why? After coming up with an answer, they are to ask why that’s the case, and so on until they have asked the question five times. This mindset can help employees innovate by challenging existing perspectives.



CONCLUSION

In most organizations, leaders and employees alike receive the implicit message that asking questions is an unwanted challenge to authority. They are trained to focus on their work without looking closely at the process or their overall goals. But maintaining a sense of wonder is crucial to creativity and innovation. The most effective leaders look for ways to nurture their employees’ curiosity to fuel learning and discovery.




Francesca Gino is a behavioral scientist and the Tandon Family Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. She is the author of the books Rebel Talent: Why It Pays To Break The Rules At Work And In Life and Sidetracked: Why Our Decisions Get Derailed, and How We Can Stick to the Plan.
Twitter: @francescagino.

Bookmark and Share

This article was first published in Harvard Business Review www.hbr.org
TalentZoo.com Advertising