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How to Cultivate a Culture of Curiosity

By Susie Kennedy

The benefits of curiosity are significant. Leaders should understand the importance of curiosity for success and the different ways in which people are curious so that they can cultivate a culture of curiosity at work.

Why is curiosity important?

The World Economic Forum predict the top skills in demand by 2020 include creativity, originality and initiative; analytical thinking and innovation; active learning and learning strategies. McKinsey reports leaders of 21st century agile organisations must develop capabilities to help them lead in unstable rapidly changing environments. A mindset of creative discovery; fostering innovation, collaboration and value creation as well as helping their teams embrace new agile ways of working are essential. The extent to which leaders are able to develop these new skillsets depends on their curiosity.  Claudio Fernandez- Araoz advisor to global executive search firm Egon Zehnder says curiosity, a hunger for innovation and improvement of self and others, is an essential factor for assessing executive potential.

Curiosity drives us to explore and pursue new experiences. It enables us to build knowledge, develop intellect, grow relationships and creative capability.  Curiosity is fundamental for human advancement and innovation. Renaissance polymath Leonardo di Vinci was described as having unquenchable curiosity. Living in an age of unbound optimism and belief in human capabilities enabled him to contribute his unique genius to everything he touched in the realm of art and science. Physicist Marie Curie, twice winner of the Nobel prize for pioneering research on radioactivity once said, “Be less curious about people and more curious about ideas.” Curiosity is unquestionably essential for leadership capability and innovation. For business, the benefits relating to higher performance are well established.

What are the business benefits?

Recent research shows that curiosity has even greater benefits than previously recognised for organizations, leaders and employees. These include:

  • Better quality decision making. When curiosity is triggered, we are more likely to consider different alternatives and wider options rather than look for evidence to confirm our beliefs and to rely on stereotypical assumptions.
  • More innovation and positive change. Encouraging people to be curious results in constructive suggestions leading to workplace improvements.
  • Better well-being. People who express curiosity in a particular way report better well-being. They are rarely stressed, less aggressive, less defensive and feel more confident they can handle difficult situations.
  • Better performance. Curiosity is strongly correlated with competence, better performance and ease of adapting to changing environments and new roles.
  • Better problem solving. People who are curious also tend to ask more questions, a factor that often makes it easier for them to understand people and problems.
  • Reduced group conflict and better results. Curiosity helps members empathize and put themselves in other’s shoes rather than focus on their own perspective. This enables them to work more harmoniously and gain better results.
  • More open communication and better team results. Research shows that a group whose curiosity was stimulated performed better at a task than the control group because they listened more carefully and shared information more openly.
  • Better learning. People who are inquisitive tend to learn more and faster. This automatically has effects on job-related knowledge and performance.  

Despite these benefits, curiosity is not widely encouraged at work. Harvard Business School Professor Francesca Gino says one reason for this is leaders think encouraging curiosity will make it more difficult to manage people and slow down decision making. There are many steps leaders can take to encourage people to exercise curiosity leading to higher performance.  A good place to start is to understand the different ways in which people express curiosity. Leaders can then work out what actions to take to cultivate a culture of curiosity at work.

How are people curious?

There are the many different strands of research regarding the psychology and neuroscience of curiosity and it is the subject of increasing interest. Professor Todd Kashdan and colleagues at George Mason University synthesized the multiple strands of curiosity to create a single comprehensive five-dimensional model summarized below. The model tells us how we express and experience curiosity, which of our preferences yields the greatest benefits for well-being and performance and helps us understand which preference we may wish to develop to achieve greater outcomes.

  • Joyous exploration involves the recognition and desire to seek out new knowledge and information and the subsequent joy of learning and growing – this is a pleasurable state which yields high well-being benefits.
  •  Deprivation sensitivity involves seeking information to escape the tension of not knowing something by reducing information gaps – this is an unpleasant state.
  • Stress tolerance involves the willingness to embrace the doubt, confusion, anxiety and other forms of distress that arise from exploring new, unexpected, complex, mysterious or obscure events. It is associated with high well-being benefits.
  • Social curiosity involves the desire to know what other people are thinking, feeling and doing by observing, talking, or listening to conversations.
  • Thrill seeking involves the willingness to take physical, social, and financial risks to acquire varied, complex, and intense experiences.

A leader can develop different ways of expressing curiosity by understanding his or her own preferences and in so doing is better equipped to encourage others to do likewise. Indeed, leaders can make small changes which can have a disproportionately large impact on creating a culture of curiosity at work. Hal Gregersen, Executive Director at MIT says, “If you want more productive questioning to be done you have to create the conditions for it.” 

How to cultivate a culture of curiosity?

Recognising the importance and benefits of curiosity for 21st century leadership, here are some actions leaders can take to cultivate curiosity at work.

  1. Encourage curiosity. Research shows that directly encouraging people to be curious by simply asking questions such as “What is the topic or activity about which you are curious today?”  generates workplace improvements (Gino, 2018).
  2. Role model. Show yourself to be curious by actively demonstrating curiosity, embracing new experiences, asking questions, challenging thinking, being open, relaxed and playful! Say when you don’t know something.
  3. Ask questions. Ask questions that encourage people to think deeper and differently about challenges and opportunities they face such as “What would be a different way of thinking about this?”
  4. Listen and thanks. Give people the confidence and license to ask questions by being known as someone who will listen sincerely. Thank people for asking questions and coach them to ask better questions.
  5. Better brainstorming. Help teams to use better brainstorming and questioning to increase curiosity. (see HBR Better Brainstorming Mar-Apr 2018) Hal Gregersen’s Question Burst technique helps teams search for the most important questions to help solve problems.
  6. Set learning goals. Set learning goals which encourage employees to learn new skills and talents. Encourage everyone to engage in a lifelong learning mindset, inside and outside of work.
  7. Encourage learning independence. Promote independent learning where individuals can discover answers for themselves. Try self-managed learning groups rather than tutor led workshops.
  8. Create psychological safety. Help your team build accurate perceptions of each other so everyone feels respected for who they are and what they contribute and can be themselves without fear of negative consequences. Start with self-disclosure.
  9. Promote Curiosity. Hire and promote those who are curious. Look for recruits with diverse interests who are excited about learning. Use advocates to support an openly curious atmosphere.
  10. Use “walkings”. Research found a person’s creative output increased by an average of 60 per cent when walking compared with sitting. In particular walking benefits divergent thinking when we generate creative ideas by exploring many possible solutions. (For more on this see this article.)

Susie Kennedy is senior partner of KBA Solutions Limited which she founded in 1993. KBA specialises in change leadership consulting and executive development. She has contributed to Thinkers50’s most recent publication, The Transformation Playbook. Susie is Programme Director for KBA’s Institute of Leadership and Management Strategic Leadership programme for senior managers, with programmes in the University of Cambridge, Premier Foods and nationally for UK Local Government at Kings College London.

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