The Problem and the Opportunity
Just about every child has an innate curiosity about the world, but that wonderful curiosity can get crushed by the time we’re adults. The responsibilities of school, work, family, and just surviving in the world mean that most people focus on their immediate needs rather than on exploring “what might be.” Many adults are “lazy” because they rely on the mental habits and knowledge they already possess, rather than changing their habits or adding to their knowledge.
The good news is curiosity can be re-kindled and pressed into service for our personal and business lives. But, (you know there’s always a “but”) there’s a caveat: curiosity has to be nurtured and supported with approaches that don’t always seem “business friendly” at first.
Stick with me because the big takeaway is that curiosity is a “muscle” that can be—and has to be—flexed and strengthened if it’s going to be used well. We’ll talk about ways you can help your employees, and yourself, on the road to increasing curiosity, increasing your bottom line, increasing employee engagement, and increasing personal satisfaction.
A Bit of Background
While it may be true that human beings are “visual creatures,” we’re easily distracted by all of the visual stimuli we’re exposed to these days, and by our electronic devices in particular. Our attention might be initially captured by visuals, but we make sense of what we see through thought—words. And, as Rudyard Kipling once said, “Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind.” I’d argue that the most powerful words are questions that arise from curiosity.
Curiosity is largely about breadth rather than depth. Your employees might have tremendous depth of knowledge and expertise, but without making the connections between their expertise and the rest of the world—the world beyond their particular discipline—their expertise might miss the mark. That’s one of the reasons that more companies of all stripes—tech included—are hiring “generalists” who have liberal arts backgrounds, or whose work experience is very different from the “experts” the company usually relies on.
Curiosity is about the present—paying attention to the here and now. Most businesses, however, are focused only on the future: future business, future customers, future products, future productivity, and future competitors. If we’re going to develop employees’ curiosity, we need to slow down and allow their curiosity to make important connections in the present. Because, like it or not, business success only happens in the now. “Now” is all there is. Personal and business success are the result of what we do now, and the payoff is in the future.
The problem is that most businesses and business leaders don’t want employees to slow down to see what’s going on in the present. If anything, they want them to speed up. Do something!
“Curiosity is insubordination in its purest form”
Viktor Nabokov’s quip about curiosity gets to the heart of why curiosity often is treated with benign neglect, disdain, or outright hostility in some cases. When those who control departments, divisions, or companies are confident that they have the answers, they don’t want to entertain thorny questions that make them uncomfortable—and challenge what they’ve done so far.
Curiosity is hard work and it takes time. Curiosity is also ornery and somewhat rebellious because it assumes that rules are only suggestions. It takes a courageous leader to allow their staff the latitude to ask out-of-the-ordinary, difficult questions about where we’re going, and why. But, that’s one of the primary functions of leadership: communicate and sustain the vision of “where we’re going and why.”
Curious learners are those whose jobs are least likely to be replaced by machines, and a company’s curious staff—employees whose curiosity is openly supported—are the most likely to be engaged and the most likely to ensure company success. They’re also the least likely to be looking for other employment, especially now that there’s fierce competition for great employees.
Let’s try to keep one key point in mind: when we’re talking about curiosity, we’re not just talking about how to sell more stuff, get more customers, have a greater impact, and make more money. That’s all well and good, but those are results—outputs—that comes later. What we’re talking about is a curiosity that can outperform and outlast current needs because it’s the feedstock that produces beyond now.
What can we do to support curiosity?
Learning and development and HR professionals sometimes focus too heavily on the “learning” part of the phrase and less on “development.” But L&D is about more than force-feeding information to people just so they “perform” better. It’s about fostering “What if,” “why,” and “how” questions instead of just “what” and “when.” What and when are about easy answers; what if, why, and how to engage people’s deeper thought so they break out of the that’s-the-way-we’ve-always-done-it mold.
One great way to break people out of their regular mold and enhance curiosity is to encourage them to read fiction, science fiction, or speculative non-fiction, and then discuss impressions, findings, and takeaways. Again, not to solve a particular business need. Just to spark creativity and further curiosity. And, make sure that what they read is outside of their areas of specialization. A variation on this activity is to have individuals read something—even an article—and make a presentation of findings or “what was interesting about…” to a group and then have a discussion.
Another way to spark and maintain curiosity is to do what I call staying in “question energy” rather than looking for answers. Curiosity is sustained by unanswered questions and the practice of asking the questions differently. Google can give you answers, but it can’t tell you what questions you should be asking. Unfortunately, as we become used to getting easy answers, we forget how to ask difficult questions, particularly about things that might be mysterious or ill-defined.
There’s a difference between puzzles and mysteries. Puzzles ask “how many” and “where.” Puzzles have an answer and we just have to find it. Mysteries ask “why” and “how.” They’re open-ended and endlessly fascinating. We want our people to wrestle with mysteries, not just puzzles
Curiosity is about things you don’t yet care about and aren’t yet interested in–until you find out that you are. Asking questions is contagious and can point you in directions you didn’t know existed.
Yet another way to foster curiosity is to demonstrate it yourself. Wander into someone’s workspace and start a conversation. “What’s something you’ve learned recently that really intrigues you and why?” “What would you do if money wasn’t a concern for you? In other words, if you were independently wealthy, how would you spend your time?” Those kinds of questions not only demonstrate your curiosity, but they also encourage it in others
Finally, leadership in the form of a curiosity champion is required. This isn’t a one-shot deal. People need time—time away from their regular job duties to explore, ask questions, read widely, and mull over and discuss what they discover. Those activities need to be actively and openly encouraged and supported by leaders.
In their book, “The Monster Under the Bed: How Business is Mastering the Opportunity of Knowledge for Profit” authors Stan Davis and Jim Botkin make the case that businesses have to do some of the things they wish schools had done. Since most schools don’t teach curiosity, it’s up to businesses to create the kind of curiosity culture that benefits the organization and its most valuable assets—employees.