Curiosity is Key. Ask Me How.

CIMG5944. By Tim Sheerman-Chase
CIMG5944.  Photo courtesy of Tim Sheerman-Chase.

At work, do you sometimes feel guilty about indulging your curiosity?  Well, it turns out curiosity is a bigger benefit to your workplace that you might have expected.

Zandure Lurie, CEO of SurveyMonkey, asserts that curiosity is the attribute we most desperately need in today’s corporate environment.  He provides data co-created by SurveyMonkey showing that curiosity is significantly under-valued.  Senior leaders “…are speaking more and more about the importance of curiosity, recognizing it as the ultimate driver of success.”

This opinion is consistent with the finding that the best leaders are good learners.  The rules keep changing because of technology, political disruption, and demographic shifts.  Your excellence in past years may be irrelevant to the future, whereas your ability to learn-forward from your current state is critical.  You can keep pace with moving goal posts.

In Lurie’s data, executives mostly think there are no barriers to asking questions in their organizations.  But there’s a problem:  employees think otherwise.  I think executives are gripped by wishful thinking.  They wish they had a culture in which information was free-flowing upwards while decisions were moving in the direction of their own voice.  And then they talk a good line about a two-way exchange of information and decision making.  But the sincerity is perceived to be lacking.

Citing research from Stanford’s Carol Dweck, Lurie asserts that

“The Culture of Genius is largely to blame. In this type of company culture some minds are seen as inherently more brilliant than others, and others are intimidated to question things and speak up as a result. It can create a toxic environment that’s stifling curiosity and has many employees doubting whether they ‘have what it takes.’”

In the process of his article Lurie references an interesting academic paper from 2014 by Matthias Gruber, Bernard Gelman, and Charan Ranganath.  To spare you the polysyllabic details: curiosity improves learning.  This finding is sensitive to the learner’s innate curiosity about a topic (i.e. intrinsic motivation), which implies that we cannot always prescribe what others ought to learn.  It’s a nuance in workplace learning, as organizations often have a list of prescribed skills and attributes (i.e. competencies) that they perceive will determine organizational success.  But if they impose this learning obligation, they might get inferior results.

The learners who are best for an organization may be those who are already fascinated by the topic-area where an organization needs growth.  Identifying and cultivating a pre-existing fascination may be more of a recruitment-and-selection question than a performance-appraisal thing.  It poses some touchy questions about leadership style: do leaders have to hang back in those cases where the employee is already growing into a challenge of their choosing?  What shall we do with the performance scorecard, core competencies, and the mandatory learning modules?  Where’s the part where the leader “causes” important things to happen?

If a leader wants to “drive” high performance in learning, I think they would need to be good at spurring intrinsic motivation.  This has to be the hardest of soft skills.  I have a son who is fascinated by police, and there is a game he plays (in Roblox) where he’s required to write a report for every arrest he makes.  If I could just get him to write his reports with proper grammar, spelling, and punctuation, he would be producing a robust volume of writing every day under his own motivation.  But he didn’t seem to care when I last suggested this, so I had to back off.  I’ll try again next week.

The paper by Gruber and co. also finds that when learners are engaged in their curiosity they remember random trivial information in the surrounding environment.  You may have experienced this yourself: that moment you learned that one amazing thing… you can recall the room you were in, who you were with, and the weather that day.

This is notable because in business analytics it’s understood that information is data in a meaningful context.  All happenings are sensitive to the history, geography, economy, and culture in which they occur.  We don’t really get to decide what’s important and what’s trivial.  The large-and-small of every situation co-determine one another, such that tactics are just as important as strategy.  Given the research, it’s fortunate that brains remember the core experience as well as the context, as this gives us a natural opportunity to combine science and story.

Lurie makes compelling suggestions on how to turn curiosity into a strategic resource.  Make questions central to your daily work.  Encourage transparency.  Ensure the environment is safe for this exploratory behaviour.  Ensure diversity at all levels, to signal that all perspectives are cherished.  Direct this curiosity towards contact with customers.  “Celebrate prudent risks that fail – otherwise you will create a culture where employees are risk averse, thereby limiting your upside.” (Emphasis added)07

Most intriguing is that Lurie asserts that since Artificial Intelligence will allow robots to out-do us on efficiency and quality, “Being curious is our best defense.”  As we name compelling human instincts that cannot be imitated by robots, future careers become increasingly evident.  Decide for yourself what you think is interesting and share your discoveries with executives and clients.

The robots won’t have a clue.

2 thoughts on “Curiosity is Key. Ask Me How.

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