In a separate study, Harrison and his colleagues focused on call centers, where jobs tend to be highly structured and turnover is generally high. They asked incoming hires at 10 organizations to complete a survey that, among other things, measured their curiosity before they began their new jobs.
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Four weeks in, the employees were surveyed about various aspects of their work. My own research confirms that encouraging people to be curious generates workplace improvements. For one study I recruited about employees working in various companies and industries. What is one thing you usually take for granted that you want to ask about? Please make sure you think about this as you engage in your work throughout the day.
After four weeks, the participants in the first group scored higher than the others on questions assessing their innovative behaviors at work, such as whether they had made constructive suggestions for implementing solutions to pressing organizational problems.
When we are curious, we view tough situations more creatively. Studies have found that curiosity is associated with less defensive reactions to stress and less aggressive reactions to provocation. In a study of employees I found that natural curiosity was associated with better job performance, as evaluated by their direct bosses. That causes them to work together more effectively and smoothly: Conflicts are less heated, and groups achieve better results. Working with executives in a leadership program at Harvard Kennedy School, my colleagues and I divided participants into groups of five or six, had some groups participate in a task that heightened their curiosity, and then asked all the groups to engage in a simulation that tracked performance.
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The groups whose curiosity had been heightened performed better than the control groups because they shared information more openly and listened more carefully. Despite the well-established benefits of curiosity, organizations often discourage it. On the contrary, both leaders and employees understand that curiosity creates positive outcomes for their companies. True, some organizations, including 3M and Facebook, give employees free time to pursue their interests, but they are rare.
Leaders often think that letting employees follow their curiosity will lead to a costly mess. In a recent survey I conducted of chief learning officers and chief talent development officers, I found that they often shy away from encouraging curiosity because they believe the company would be harder to manage if people were allowed to explore their own interests.
They also believe that disagreements would arise and making and executing decisions would slow down, raising the cost of doing business. Research finds that although people list creativity as a goal, they frequently reject creative ideas when actually presented with them. But it also means not settling for the first possible solution—and so it often yields better remedies. In the early s Henry Ford focused all his efforts on one goal: reducing production costs to create a car for the masses.
By he had realized that vision with the introduction of the Model T.
But in the late s, as the U. While Ford remained fixated on improving the Model T, competitors such as General Motors started producing an array of models and soon captured the main share of the market. Owing to its single-minded focus on efficiency, Ford stopped experimenting and innovating and fell behind. In one survey, I asked about people who had recently started working for various companies a series of questions designed to measure curiosity; six months later I administered a follow-up survey. Because people were under pressure to complete their work quickly, they had little time to ask questions about broad processes or overall goals.
It takes thought and discipline to stop stifling curiosity and start fostering it. Here are five strategies leaders can employ. The company took this unusual approach to finding job candidates because it places a premium on curiosity. What kept you persistent? To identify potential employees who are T-shaped, IDEO pays attention to how candidates talk about past projects. Someone who focuses only on his or her own contributions may lack the breadth to appreciate collaboration.
T-shaped candidates are more likely to talk about how they succeeded with the help of others and to express interest in working collaboratively on future projects. To assess curiosity, employers can also ask candidates about their interests outside of work. And companies can administer curiosity assessments, which have been validated in a myriad of studies.
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Leaders can encourage curiosity throughout their organizations by being inquisitive themselves. Dyke used their responses to inform his thinking about the changes needed to solve problems facing the BBC and to identify what to work on first. After officially taking the reins, he gave a speech to the staff that reflected what he had learned and showed employees that he had been truly interested in what they said. By asking questions and genuinely listening to the responses, Dyke modeled the importance of those behaviors.
He also highlighted the fact that when we are exploring new terrain, listening is as important as talking: It helps us fill gaps in our knowledge and identify other questions to investigate.
Changing employee behavior
That may seem intuitive, but my research shows that we often prefer to talk rather than to listen with curiosity. For instance, when I asked some high-level leaders in executive education classes what they would do if confronted with an organizational crisis stemming from both financial and cultural issues, most said they would take action: move to stop the financial bleeding and introduce initiatives to refresh the culture.
Only a few said they would ask questions rather than simply impose their ideas on others. 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. Why do we refrain from asking questions? Experience and expertise exacerbate the problem: As people climb the organizational ladder, they think they have less to learn.
Such fears and beliefs are misplaced, my recent research shows. When we demonstrate curiosity about others by asking questions, people like us more and view us as more competent, and the heightened trust makes our relationships more interesting and intimate. By asking questions, we promote more-meaningful connections and more-creative outcomes.
They were doubtful that she could add value to their work and, right off the bat, asked what she knew about engineering. Without hesitation, Fili-Krushel made a zero with her fingers. To combat that tendency, Ed Catmull, the cofounder and president, makes a point of talking about times when Pixar made bad choices.
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In this way Catmull gives new recruits license to question existing practices. Recognizing the limits of our own knowledge and skills sends a powerful signal to others. Tenelle Porter, a postdoctoral scholar in psychology at the University of California, Davis, describes intellectual humility as the ability to acknowledge that what we know is sharply limited. As her research demonstrates, higher levels of intellectual humility are associated with a greater willingness to consider views other than our own. People with more intellectual humility also do better in school and at work.
When we accept that our own knowledge is finite, we are more apt to see that the world is always changing and that the future will diverge from the present. By embracing this insight, leaders and employees can begin to recognize the power of exploration. Finally, leaders can model inquisitiveness by approaching the unknown with curiosity rather than judgment. As human beings, we all feel an urge to evaluate others—often not positively. In doing so, he is modeling behavior that he expects of others in the lab.
Although commercial flights are almost always routine, every time his plane pushed back from the gate he would remind himself that he needed to be prepared for the unexpected. When the unexpected came to pass, on a cold January day in , Sully was able to ask himself what he could do, given the available options, and come up with a creative solution.
He successfully fought the tendency to grasp for the most obvious option landing at the nearest airport. Especially when under pressure, we narrow in on what immediately seems the best course of action. But those who are passionate about continuous learning contemplate a wide range of options and perspectives. But focusing on learning is generally more beneficial to us and our organizations, as some landmark studies show. For example, when U. Air Force personnel were given a demanding goal for the number of planes to be landed in a set time frame, their performance decreased.
A body of research demonstrates that framing work around learning goals developing competence, acquiring skills, mastering new situations, and so on rather than performance goals hitting targets, proving our competence, impressing others boosts motivation. And when motivated by learning goals, we acquire more-diverse skills, do better at work, get higher grades in college, do better on problem-solving tasks, and receive higher ratings after training.
Unfortunately, organizations often prioritize performance goals.
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Leaders can help employees adopt a learning mindset by communicating the importance of learning and by rewarding people not only for their performance but for the learning needed to get there. Deloitte took this path: In it replaced its performance management system with one that tracks both learning and performance. Employees meet regularly with a coach to discuss their development and learning along with the support they need to continually grow. Leaders can also stress the value of learning by reacting positively to ideas that may be mediocre in themselves but could be springboards to better ones.
Organizations can foster curiosity by giving employees time and resources to explore their interests. One of my favorite examples comes from my native country. In the s some employees caught a coworker leaving the factory with a bag full of iron pieces and machinery. They accused him of stealing and asked the company to fire him. Instead of firing him, Olivetti gave him time to create the machine and charged him with overseeing its production.
The result was Divisumma, the first electronic calculator. Divisumma sold well worldwide in the s and s, and Olivetti promoted the worker to technical director.