October 12, 2018 Written by Ashley Hamer
We’re not too big to admit that “curiosity” has become something of a buzzword these days. Search for the term on a job board, and you’ll find thousands of postings for everything from a senior data scientist (“We welcome your adaptability, your curiosity, and your passion”) to a marketing intern (“must have intellectual curiosity”). Buzzword or not, it’s hard to see the downside of encouraging a healthy sense of curiosity. But according to recent research highlighted in Harvard Business Review, employees don’t feel as free to be curious as their bosses think they do — but there are ways to fix that.
Ask Questions, Get Answers
There’s a good reason curiosity is having a moment in the workplace: It makes people better at their jobs. When you’re curious about a subject, you learn and remember more, thanks to the fact that your brain treats the new knowledge as a reward instead of a requirement. A curious mindset also makes you less prone to bias and stereotyping because, according to Harvard Business School’s Francesca Gino, it leads you to look for alternative theories for what you think you know. That helps you make smarter decisions.
Curiosity also makes you better at receiving feedback. In a study published last year in the Academy of Management Journal, Spencer Harrison of INSEAD and Karyn Dossinger of Suffolk University demonstrated a real-world example of the benefits of curiosity. They recruited 39 graphic designers who submitted designs to a website’s weekly T-shirt competition for a cash prize. This particular site gave competitors the option to submit their early drafts to an online workshop where they could get feedback from their peers, make revisions, and get more feedback until they were ready to submit their final design. The researchers found that participants who scored higher on a measure of curiosity asked more open questions, which lead to more feedback, which, in turn, these curious participants were more likely to implement in their following drafts. Accepting feedback is huge in the workplace, and a sense of curiosity can help.
Clearly, it’s in a company’s best interest to foster a culture of curiosity. Many do — or at least think they do. But do they really?
C-Suite Killed the Curiosity
To find out, Harrison teamed up with Erin Pinkus and Jon Cohen of SurveyMonkeyto survey more than 23,000 people: 16,000 mid- and lower-level employees, and more than 1,500 so-called C-level executives (named for the Cs in their titles, like CEO and CFO). Eighty-three percent of those higher-up executives said that curiosity is encouraged “a great deal” or “a good amount” at their company, but only 52 percent of lower-level employees said the same. Likewise, 49 percent of C-level executives agreed with the statement “Being curious leads to earning more money,” whereas a whopping 81 percent of employees thought curiosity had no bearing on the money they make.
While those in charge think they’re encouraging everyone to engage their curiosity, it doesn’t seem to be happening. That makes a certain amount of sense: You can’t be fast and efficient if you’re always asking questions, and besides, it’s uncomfortable to challenge the status quo. But research shows that curiosity is essential for a business to perform at its highest level, and employees just don’t feel curious. What’s a company to do?
Harrison suggested a fix: acknowledge that everyone is curious in some area of their life — if it’s not at work, it might be in a favorite hobby or side project — and encourage employees to bring those interests to work. By identifying with their curious side at the office, employees are more likely to let that curiosity bleed over into their work responsibilities.
Gino has some other helpful tips from her own research. She says managers should set a good example by being curious themselves by asking questions with a sincere interest in the answers and admitting when they don’t know something — a scary prospect when you want to look competent and in charge, but Gino assures us that asking questions makes people appear more competent, not less. Finally, give employees time to explore their interests. It’s hard to be curious with your boss breathing down your neck.