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Cultivate Curiosity to Get the Most from Your Team

The Polaroid camera resulted from a child's innocent question: Why? In 1943, inventor Edwin Land was taking photos of his three-year-old daughter. She asked to see a picture after he snapped it. He explained that the film had to be developed and printed at a lab. It would take weeks until she could see the images.

When his daughter asked why she couldn't see them sooner, Land realized she was onto something, and he began building what was essentially a darkroom in a box. The Land Camera, the first instant camera, hit the market several years later.

Not all simple questions lead to breakthroughs and discoveries. However, organizations benefit when they encourage curiosity, and their leaders model it. When part of the company culture, inquisitiveness improves decision-making and employee engagement.

The Case for Curiosity

When employees are curious, they make better decisions. They discard biases and old ways of doing things. They consider new options. They ignore stereotypes and are open to new ideas. Their decisions are, therefore, more rational.

Employees also treat each other with understanding when they are curious. They show genuine interest in others' ideas, encouraging people to share their thoughts. Teammates ask more questions to build off other employees' suggestions. This process develops trust, as employees know they will not be judged on their contributions. Employees learn constructive debate and enjoy collaboration.

Showing curiosity towards others also builds empathy. Asking questions makes the other person feel noticed and valued. Their responses provide insight into their life, struggles, and values. Employees work better together when they understand and care about each other. And that drives employee engagement and retention.

The Curious Leader

A 2015 study by PwC cited curiosity and open-mindedness as essential leadership traits for a changing and challenging business environment. CEO Michael Dell responded in this study, “With curiosity comes learning and new ideas. If you’re not doing that, you’re going to have a real problem.”

Most business leaders attained their positions by demonstrating functional capability and problem-solving skills. They became the "go-to" person to offer solutions and provide guidance. Curiosity was most likely not the characteristic that got them promoted.

Yet positioning the business for future success requires thinking about the "whats, hows, and whys." Leaders need to look ahead and anticipate trends, technology changes, and competitive threats. Asking questions helps them uncover roadblocks, opportunities, and unique solutions.

Some people may not be naturally inquisitive. Ian Leslie, author of Curious, considers inquisitiveness "more of a state than a trait." He says everyone is born curious, but only some retain the habits of exploring, learning, and discovering as they age. You can develop curiosity by exposing yourself to new information, opinions, and experiences.

Do You Encourage Curiosity?

By nature, children question and strive to understand the world around them. But by middle school age, children often stop asking questions. They become worried about their peers' opinions and fear being vulnerable. They don't want to admit that they don't know everything.

This hesitation continues into the adult workplace and accelerates as one progresses up the corporate ladder. Business leaders are wary of saying "I don't know" around their staff, peers, and superiors. They feel they should know all the answers. They fear a lack of respect if they are not in command.

Yet when leaders are humble, they set an example for their teams. Employees feel safe asking questions. They are willing to step outside their comfort zones to seek information.

Interestingly, there is a disconnect between leadership and their team members about curiosity. A Harvard Business Review study found that 83 percent of senior executives believe their organizations encourage curiosity "a great deal" or "a good amount." Yet only about half of their staff agree.

While these leaders may think they cultivate curiosity, they may be considering innovation projects and new product development. These initiatives differ from everyday inquisitiveness, which leaders may be quashing without realizing it.

Curiosity Crushers

Curious employees might be considered insubordinate by their managers. Their bosses may think they take unnecessary risks. Managers may prefer their staff to "stick to their knitting." They may encourage and reward focus on the day-to-day responsibilities. By doing so, managers may be subconsciously discouraging employees with questioning natures.

Psychology professor Dr. Todd Kashdan identified five ways leaders may inhibit employees' natural curiosity.

  1. “That ‘dumb question’ look.” You're probably thinking you'd never say an employee's question was dumb. You may make a point of saying, "There are no dumb questions” during brainstorming sessions. But your body language may be saying otherwise. A subtle eye roll, a slight cringe, a look exchanged with a peer – your team may pick up on these nonverbal clues. Your staff will feel like middle schoolers again, fearing their peers' judgment and shutting down discussion.

  2. Punishing failure. Curiosity is an important part of risk-taking and innovation. Kashdan says that fear of failure is the enemy of creativity. Yet trying new things means that some concepts will not succeed. Leaders need to emphasize discipline and accountability without punishment for intelligent risk-taking.

  3. Emphasizing process over results. There is a tug-of-war here. Repeatable, scalable processes help an organization produce results and grow. Employees need to follow operating procedures. But they should also be encouraged to question why things are done a certain way and suggest improvements.

Kashdan advises,

“If leaders want good work, they should give employees rules and maps. If leaders want great work, they should give employees an idea of what is of interest, a few constraints, and then let employees uncover the strategies and tactics that work best. Trust the people that you hired and trained - and give them autonomy.”

  1. Failure of leadership to model curiosity. Employees feel safe when their leaders admit that they don’t know all the answers. They are comfortable asking questions and pursuing new options. Executives need to convey their genuine desire to seek out answers.

  2. Cultivating talent, not teams. Curiosity thrives in teams. Strong individual contributors may be important in some functions, but teamwork leads to more conversation and idea generation. When teammates have diverse backgrounds and interests, they ask one another questions and tend to be open to new approaches.

Supporting Curiosity

Researcher Francesca Gino, writing in the Harvard Business Review, provides five ways to bolster curiosity:

  1. Hire for it. Curious people will inquire about much more than their job responsibilities during the interview process. They may ask about the company’s products, competitors, and objectives. Interviewers can assess curiosity and empathy by asking about the candidate's role in past projects. A focus on their contributions may signal a lack of concern about others' roles. Questions about the interviewee's outside interests can also shed light on their desire to know more about the world beyond work.

  2. Model it. This is perhaps the most important way to encourage curiosity. Ask questions of your team and listen generously to the answers. Gino provides an insightful example: she asked 230 executives what they would do if confronted with an organizational crisis scenario. Most said they would immediately take action. Few said they would ask questions first. She noted, “Management books commonly encourage leaders assuming new positions to communicate their vision from the start rather than ask employees how they can be most helpful. It’s bad advice.”

  3. Emphasize learning. Supplement performance goals with learning goals. While delivering results is important, so is mastering new skills and developing competencies. Author John Hagel III notes that leaders who ask questions and inspire others to do the same create a culture of learning. He predicts that the successful organizations of the future are those that encourage employees to learn faster and rapidly expand shareholder value.

  4. Encourage exploration. Tuition reimbursement plans, mentorships, employee networks, and even open workspaces can encourage employees to seek formal and informal education.

  5. Promote it. Gino suggests "Why? What if? and How might we?" days. These are structured opportunities for employees to ask questions and brainstorm solutions to pressing problems.

Author Scott Shigeoka includes the question, "Who else?" Employees consider who else should be involved in a problem-solving exercise. They might include employees from other functional areas, plus customers and vendors. Leaders may want to employ the Toyota 5 Whys approach, in which the question is asked five times. This method helps identify root causes and drive continuous improvement.

Curiosity and Culture

Just as curiosity can be discouraged by the leaders’ behavior, a positive culture of encouraging curiosity depends on the leaders.

Some corporate leaders are strong champions of curiosity. CEO Hans Vestberg rolled out his “Verizon 2.0" plan, which includes "creating an environment that embraces change, encourages curiosity and strategic risk-taking while inspiring all of us.” Novartis describes their culture as “Inspired, Curious, and Unbossed.”

Novartis Chief Learning Officer Simon Brown said that as part of his company’s “Learning Month,” “We need curious minds, we need to learn new skills, take in diverse perspectives and alternative thinking, and rekindle that child-like curiosity to ask why.” The company dedicates each September to improving curiosity.

While initiatives such as these promote curiosity, so is starting a habit of responding to a question with, “I don’t know, but let’s find out!” Model enthusiasm for learning, questioning, and exploring ways to strengthen your organization.