Management by Coaching
By Kimberly Paterson, CEC
THE CASE FOR CURIOSITY
Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it could breathe new life into your business
Almost every discovery mankind has ever made came about through curiosity. Take the Polaroid camera. The inspiration for Edwin Land’s instant developing camera came from his three-year-old daughter. While he was taking her picture one day, the little girl turned to him and innocently asked, “Why do we have to wait so long to see the picture?” That one simple question spawned a $1.4 billion global business.
Leaders say they prize curiosity … . But the reality tells a different story. In most organizations, leaders and employees alike receive the implicit message that asking questions is an unwanted challenge to authority.
Although the Polaroid camera may not have stood the test of time, the case for the business value of curiosity has never been stronger. While we all intuitively recognize the value of a curious mind, it turns out that curiosity boosts overall business performance in more ways than we realize, including:
- More problem solving, more innovation. According to research conducted by Harvard Business School Professor Francesca Gino, cultures that encourage curiosity generate more workplace improvements. One of her studies focused on the behaviors of 200 employees in various companies and industries. Twice a week for four weeks, half of the participants 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. Set aside a few minutes to identify how you’ll approach your work today with these questions in mind.” The remaining participants 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.” Findings revealed that participants in the first group scored higher than those in the second group on questions that assessed their innovative behaviors at work, such as whether they had made constructive suggestions for implementing solutions to pressing organizational problems. Innovation and problem solving is just one area in which curiosity supports performance.
- Better decision making. Curiosity leads people to explore more alternatives. Without it, we’re more likely to be blinded by confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is the tendency to notice, focus on, and give greater credence to evidence that confirms our existing beliefs or hypotheses. The bias can lead us to make poor decisions because it distorts the reality from which the evidence is drawn.
- More engaged employees. Research strongly suggests that the more curious people are, the more deeply engaged they are in their work and the more likely they are to generate ideas and share those ideas with others. As Gallup’s 20-year study shows, employee engagement is a consistent predictor of many organizational outcomes—including customer loyalty, profitability, and sales. Gallup’s post-COVID-19 studies show that employee engagement is an even greater predictor of performance during tough economic times.
- Less conflict, stronger working relationships. The data also shows that higher levels of curiosity are associated with less defensive and aggressive reactions. Instead of assuming someone’s intention and feeling attacked, curious people tend to use questions to gain a fuller understanding of the situation before rushing to judgment. Their ability to explore and appreciate others’ perspectives helps them achieve a shared understanding and, ultimately, better outcomes when conflict arises.
- Greater adaptability. In times of instability and uncertainty, the ability to adapt provides a competitive edge. People and organizations that rank high on the curiosity scale have fundamental characteristics that make it easier for them to adapt to a continually evolving landscape. They like novelty and they embrace change. They have a higher tolerance for stress that comes with complexity, ambiguity, and the unexpected. They thrive on experimenting and exploring alternatives.
Dampening the spark
Given the value of curiosity, why is it in such short supply in so many people and organizations?
We’re born curious. To a child, everything is fascinating. They’re filled with wonder and desire to explore the world around them. There’s no end to their questions and curiosity. “A typical four-year-old asks 300 questions a day, but by middle school the number is down to practically zero,” says Todd Kashdan, Ph.D., one of the foremost researchers on curiosity.
Parents instill fear and discourage risk taking out of a desire to protect their children. “Don’t touch that dog; he may bite.” “Don’t go too close to the water; you could be hit by a wave.” “Don’t wander off; you could get lost.” In school we quickly learn that knowing the right answer is valued more than being curious. Increasingly we’re taught there is one right answer and one right way to think. Questioning what the current culture considers politically correct can get you shut down.
Things get even worse when you enter the workforce. The data show that curiosity declines steadily the longer people are on the job. Leaders say they prize curiosity and believe it plays a vital role in creating positive outcomes for their organizations. But the reality tells a different story. In most organizations, leaders and employees alike receive the implicit message that asking questions is an unwanted challenge to authority. It increases risk and inefficiency.
Researchers Spencer Harrison, Erin Pinkus, and Jon Cohen surveyed more than 23,000 people across industries, including 16,000 employees at various levels of leadership and over 1,500 C-suite leaders, to understand how they view the role of curiosity in their organizations. They learned that 83% of C-level or president-level executives say curiosity is encouraged “a great deal” or “a good amount” at their company. Just 52% of individual employees say the same. A staggering 81% of employees believe that curiosity makes no material difference in their compensation.
Other common stumbling blocks across industries include a top-down approach to decision making, short-term goals that don’t allow time for creative thinking, a preference for safe ideas over new ones, and cultures where tolerance for any failure is low.
Cultivating a curious culture
Curiosity is a fundamental human trait. Some people are much more curious than others, largely because of their genetic makeup. As in all cases, however, genetics is never the whole story. Environment plays a critical role. You can enhance the level of curiosity in individuals and in your organization by taking these steps:
- Model curiosity. Curiosity requires champions, and that must start at the top. It’s vital for leaders to send a clear message that questions are the key to learning and business improvement, not a challenge to authority or a disruption that slows progress. Leaders need to model that it’s okay not to know all the answers. Rather than feeling the pressure to be the all-knowing ones, leaders need to have the confidence to stand up at a meeting and say, “I don’t know; let’s find out.” It’s also important to model the art of asking good questions. Too many questions, where the leader withholds his or her opinion, can leave team members feeling interrogated rather than engaged. Rhetorical questions designed to make a point rather than to understand tend to undermine trust and lead people to withdraw from the discussion. Effective questions come from a place of genuine curiosity
- Hire for curiosity. There are a variety of ways to assess curiosity in potential applicants. One is a standard assessment tool that measures the Big Five Personality Traits. One of the personality traits it measures is openness to experience, which is a curiosity and creativity measurement. Job interviews also provide ample opportunity to assess an applicant’s level of curiosity. For example, are they only curious about their role and how it pertains to them or are they more broadly curious about the organization, how it operates, and opportunities they might be able to get involved in. Pay close attention to how people talk about past projects. Do they focus on how they were able to improve processes? Do they offer examples of how they were able to work with other divisions to address client issues? Someone who focuses only on their contribution may lack the interpersonal skills required to work well with others. Also, ask about the applicant’s interests outside of work. The sales professional who’s taking a coding class at the local community college just because he wants to understand coding probably has more curiosity than the person whose only outside activity is hanging out with friends.
- Hardwire curiosity into the organization. Here are five simple ways you can start building curiosity into how you do business:
- Organize “why” days where employees are encouraged to investigate problems by asking “why” questions. For each answer, ask why again, until “why” has been asked five times.
- Write meeting agendas as questions. For example, “How should we prioritize these projects?” or “How can we fix the problem we’re having with turnaround time?” Attendees are more likely to engage in meetings when they know they can affect the outcome.
- Seek out constructive dissent. Deliberately engage with people who disagree with you and be willing to probe them on their point of view.
- Give people license to be curious. When a respected leader or person of influence gives someone positive reinforcement about their curiosity, it becomes part of their identity. Then they feel empowered to ask questions that might upset the status quo.
- Reward learning. A body of research shows that framing work around learning goals such as mastering skills and developing competencies is more inspiring for employees and generates better results than focusing on hitting targets.
Closing the gap between talk and reality
If leaders want their people to be better problem solvers and innovators, more adaptable, and more engaged, it begins with fostering curiosity. That requires having the courage to remove barriers within the organization that hold people back and acknowledging that you can’t accomplish a bold initiative until you embrace the reality that failure is a necessary part of progress.
Kimberly Paterson, Certified Executive Coach and Master Energy Leadership Coach, is president of CIM (www.cim-co.com), CIM works with organizations and individuals to maximize performance through positive lasting behavioral change. Her clients are property and casualty insurance companies, agencies, and brokers. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Kimberly on www.linkedin.com/in/kimberly-paterson and twitter.com/CIMChangeMinds.