Curiosity in the Workplace: Making Business Work
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“All it takes is a commitment to ask questions, to explore new possibilities, to embark on a journey of discovery.”
- Ian Sanders
A research project starts with a question. Some of the most successful and inspiring companies worldwide were created as a result of a lingering question. Some of history’s most notable figures were driven by a burning question. For example, 25-year old Bill Gates, relentlessly focused on the question: “Is Microsoft software making the personal-computing dream come true?” And, until this day, he assesses the quality of his life through a set of questions.
“Questions are places in your mind where answers fit. If you haven’t asked the question, the answer has nowhere to go. It hits your mind and bounces right off. You have to ask the question — you have to want to know — in order to open up space for the answer to fit.”
- Clayton Christensen
Curiosity is the birthplace of learning. It’s not only a good idea for living brave, fulfilling lives, it's also a core ingredient for making business work. And research has a couple of things to say about the place and importance of curiosity in business.
Curiosity at Work
New research shows that curiosity in the workplace is more important than previously thought. It’s what allows leaders and organizations to assess and respond to constant changes and the uncertainty that markets face. Triggering curiosity allows for deep thinking and a creative approach to problems and challenges, facilitated by generating multiple alternatives and perspectives.
Here are some the benefits of curiosity as it relates to the workplace:
Better decision making.
Our brains have certain built-in biases that shape how we think. The confirmation bias is our tendency to select and consider only the information that confirms our pre-existing beliefs and to stereotype people. It’s one of the hardest biases to overcome. Curiosity makes us less likely to fall prey of this bias and hence contributes to fewer decision making errors. It’s by contemplating different scenarios and alternatives that we can expose ourselves to more information and ideas, therefore, decreasing errors in the process of decision-making.
Innovation and positive changes.
In a study led by Spencer Harrison and colleagues from Insead, artisans whose work was sold through websites, were asked questions designed to assess the level of curiosity they experienced at work. Then, they assessed for creativity by the number of items created over a two-week period. The study revealed that one unit increase in creativity was associated with a 34% increase in creativity.
In another study by Francesca Gino, a Business Administration Professor at Harvard Business School, she recruited 200 employees from different organizations and industries. Then, twice a week, for a period of four weeks, one group of participants received a text message that said the following:
“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 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 participants, the control group, received a message that encouraged reflection but not 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 of study, the participants who received the curiosity message showed higher scores of innovative behavior at work, such as making constructive suggestions for implementing solutions to organizational problems.
Reduced group conflict.
“Willingness to learn from each moment — as opposed to defending ourselves by stonewalling, explaining, justifying, withdrawing, blaming — is much more important than IQ, family background or education. The great advantage of openness-to-learning is that you’re in charge of it at all times. You can choose to shift out of defensiveness into genuine curiosity at any moment.”
- Gay & Katie Hendricks
A conflict is a function of the interplay of specific, stress based, fight, flight or freeze behaviors that occur as a result of the decision to defend against a perceived threat. Under a threat, we’re blind to new information, stuck on what we know, quick to judge and rash in our reactions. Curiosity shuts down and we stop using our minds effectively.
In this state, our brain falls prey to three cognitive biases: tunnel vision, selective perception, and confirmation bias. Tunnel vision draws our attention to one central object, what we believe to be threatening or our goal to stop it. It prevents us from paying attention to neighboring information and question the adequacy of our thinking. This narrow focus magnifies selective perception, which is the tendency to attend only to data that confirms our beliefs and expectations while disregarding any contradictory or diverse information. What follows is that by only taking into account information that confirms our beliefs and expectations, our curiosity plummets and we become certain of what we believe to be true - confirmation bias - despite the inadequacy of our attention and information. Stuck on defensiveness and certainty, we’re unable to question how we’re thinking and approaching the situation or the validity of the threat, and hence become focused on defending and protecting what we most care about.
In very simple terms, we start playing a movie in our minds, where we zoom-in on the threat, and all our focus and attention is in defending and protecting ourselves and what we care about the most. This leads us to seek and consider information that validates this perspective while disregarding any other. What follows is that our fear and biased thinking becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. So often we hear that our minds are our greatest enemies, when conflict strikes this holds especially true.
If threat is at the basis of conflict, curiosity holds the key to its transformation.
“The mind needs to be wellstocked more with questions than with answers, else it will be closed and unable to learn.”
Change becomes possible when we start questioning the way we’re using our minds and the adequacy of our information and thinking. Using curiosity in a focused way, targeted towards how we and others are using our minds to make decisions that lead to conflict behavior, opens the space for uncertainty, from which a shift can take place.
Uncertainty reengages our critical thinking ability, it reactivates curiosity, making the reasons why we do things in conflict discoverable. Curious questions like: “what is really at stake here?” “what will doing that change?” “what is best to do?” and “what could I do?” elicit reflection, new insights and the possibility for different solutions.
Curiosity and wonder directed at others can produce in them the feeling of being understood, that allows for critical thinking and self-awareness to emerge, improving the receiver’s ability to think not just about themselves but about those in conflict with. Studies have shown that when someone experiences another’s understanding of them in their own terms, three emotions predominate: satisfaction, security and tension relief. These are the opposite of the anxiety and fear that accompany threat. Feeling understood allows us to relax, ease temper and defense, and move towards the kind of thinking that allows us to connect with others rather than defend and attack.
Better communication and team performance.
Executives at a leadership program at Harvard Kennedy School were divided into groups of five or six, some groups were asked to engage in a curiosity heightening task, and all the groups were then asked to engage on a simulation that tracked performance. The curiosity groups outperformed the control groups because they shared more information and were more skilled as listeners.
Challenges To Make Curiosity Work
Widely accepted as valuable, most people tend to see the benefits of curiosity. In a study conducted, curiosity was viewed as a catalyst for job satisfaction, motivation, innovation, and high-performance. Yet, between acknowledging its relevance and making it a significant part of the organizational culture there is a huge gap. While leaders and workers view curious people as bringing new ideas and insights into the organizations, two tendencies operate as barriers to implementing curiosity in the workplace.
The first entails the mindset about the practical pursuit of curiosity. Leaders have a misperception of exploration, believing that allowing employees to follow their interests and curiosity will lead to a mess that equates with high costs and uncertain gains. They also believe that it will be hard to manage people if they’re allowed to explore their passions.
The second challenge to making curiosity work is that leaders often prioritize efficiency over curiosity. While history has given us examples of the benefits of a focus on efficiency, as modeled by Henry Ford’s efforts to reduce the cost of production in order to create a car for the masses. The same example serves to show the dangers of a single-focus on efficiency. When demand and economy rose to higher levels, consumers started wanting greater variety in their cars.
Failing to innovate and experiment, Ford started to fall behind, losing marketspace to some of its more innovative competitors. When the pressure is solely focused on efficiency people stop questioning processes, exploring new products and ways of achieving the goals. And this in itself is a high cost to an organization in a time and place where change is a constant.
Putting Curiosity to Work
Now that you have a better understanding of the benefits of curiosity in the workplace, it’s time to put this knowledge to work.
How can you model curiosity and inquisitiveness in your organization?
Where is it most needed?
How are you allowing your people to broaden their interests?
How will focus on learning and instill that focus on the people you work with?
What questions will you focus on this year?
What does leading with curiosity look like?
Gino, F. (2018). The Business Case for Curiosity. Harvard Business Review, September 2018 Issue.
Price, M. (2018). Revistademediacion.com. Retrieved here.