Why You Should Foster Curiosity As A Skill At Work
Curiosity has for a long time been viewed unfavourably by organisations, leaders and wider society. In the 1800s, it was even viewed as a weakness that, in the moral values of the time, mainly women would possess. Even during the social revolution of the 20th century, curiosity wasn’t a useful mindset for most workers. Their value was limited to the implementation of tasks. Companies were heavily focused on profiting from their workforce, seen by many as exploitation.
Stefaan van Hooydonk, founder of the Global Curiosity Institute, says the world is now moving from exploitation to exploration. Exploration has often been reserved for senior leadership – a habit that persists since the time of the industrial revolution. With the development of the knowledge economy, however, exploration at all levels is becoming important.
Today, businesses face an uncharted landscape with a multitude of challenges. Companies and industries become disrupted quickly, and staying complacent has never been so risky. Therefore innovation is the key not just to flourish but to stay afloat. Curiosity acts as a prerequisite for innovation – a company that encourages exploration and curiosity puts itself in a better position to innovative.
Three dimensions of curiosity
How exactly is curiosity defined? Van Hooydonk points out that almost everyone has intuitive definitions of what it means: the joyous exploration that children have, the wonder we have for the world, the many discoveries that created fire, electricity and so much more.
American philosopher and psychologist William James came up with the following description at the end of the 19th century: ‘the impulse towards better cognition’. From there, the definition has fluctuated with changes in our knowledge of underlying psychological processes. Van Hooydonk defines curiosity as three different dimensions.
First, there is the cognitive dimension: the more we know about something, the more interested we are likely to be.
The second is social curiosity, or empathic curiosity. In other words, this is our interest in other people. Empathic curiosity can be a key to defuse conflicts, for example.
The third is the self-reflective dimension. This is the ability to look inwards and explore our conscious and unconscious thoughts, our values, biases and beliefs.
An accurate umbrella-definition for curiosity is the ‘drive state for information’.
Curiosity in the workplace
Research has shown that curiosity brings many benefits to the workplace.
As Van Hooydonk explains, for organisations this extends to faster product development, coming up with better solutions to challenges, increased agility, and readiness to move in different directions. Curiosity also tends to attract inquisitive minds and can make a company stand out when competing for talent.
For teams, greater curiosity can increase efficiency and productivity, reduce group conflict and decision-making errors, and create an environment that is better able to accept new members into the team and embrace diversity among them.
Curiosity brings benefits at an individual level as well: a reduction in cognitive bias, reduced anxiety, and higher levels of engagement at work. It has even been shown to foster career progression and financial gain.
Given these benefits, it is easy to assume that most organisations must actively nurture curiosity, but this isn’t quite the case. It appears that most want to put an emphasis on curiosity but do little to make it happen.
‘If you ask senior executives whether they are favouring curiosity in the workplace, almost everyone would say “of course”, says van Hooydonk. However, when you look at what gets rewarded, it is often not exploration, but rather exploitation.’
‘Look at this scenario: you have two people that are ready for a promotion, and one person has stuck their neck out but fails in some ways, yet created a lot of good learning for the team and your organisation. Are you going to put forward the person who failed, or the other person who has been doing exactly what they have been asked to do? Do you have processes in place to support curiosity? Are you celebrating exploration? It may sound very nice in a PowerPoint, but few organisations are doing it.’
Executive development leader Henrik Waitz adds: ‘The power of curiosity is lost in the construct and design of organisations today.’