An overwhelming amount of research indicates that when businesses promote curiosity as part of their company culture, they tend to see amazing results. High levels of curiosity in the workplace have been connected with better solutions to company problems, better relationships between employees, decreased stress, and overall better job performance.
Most business leaders know this–and yet a 2018 study conducted by Harvard Business School found that out of 3,000 employees in a wide range of industries, “…only 24% reported feeling curious in their jobs on a regular basis, and 70% said they face barriers to asking more questions at work” (The Business Case For Curiosity).
So why aren’t we doing more to encourage curiosity in the workplace? First, we underestimate the impact of curiosity on the success of the business as a whole, so leaders are less motivated to implement changes that would deepen curiosity and encourage a culture of inquiry. Second, even if we do fully understand the benefits of curiosity in the workplace, we’re not entirely sure how to foster that curiosity.
With those two barriers in mind, let’s take a closer look at why curiosity is good for business, and how to foster it.
Why curiosity is good for business
1. Company cultures focused on curiosity drive business growth.
So how does curiosity affect the bottom line? Obviously we want people to get along, feel invested, and come up with new ideas. Ultimately, though, all these people need to be paid, and for them to get paid, the company needs to generate revenue. How does a culture of curiosity generate revenue?
Here’s an example: because employees that work in this type of culture are curious, they ask more questions and look for the best answers. Think about the most effective salesperson you know. What makes them so good, aside from being able to read people? They ask questions. They look for ways to make connections and they find the solutions that customers need. This urge to ask questions in order to understand and connect is the very definition of curiosity. So in the case of a salesperson, we can see how curiosity drives sales very directly.
However, curiosity can affect sales indirectly and have just as big of an impact. Any time an employee contributes to solving a company problem, they’ve indirectly contributed to increasing sales. Giving your employees, regardless of their department or job title, the time and tools they need to be curious allows them to develop the skills that increase revenue and drive the growth of your business.
2. Active minds create newer, better solutions.
When you promote curiosity within your business, no matter the size of your business, and no matter if your industry is explicitly a creative one or not, your employees will have a desire to search for answers.
When everyone, not just the owners or managers are creatively engaged, you’ll get a greater variety of perspectives when trying to solve company problems, which often translates to better, more innovative solutions. Maybe there’s a workflow that just isn’t working. Perhaps you’re not getting a lot of leads, and you’re not sure why. Or maybe you need a way to improve on a product. Curious people are compelled to solve problems of all types, and with a company full of diverse ideas, you’ll find it easier to face the challenges you’re confronted with and pivot quicker.
Furthermore, when you create a culture of curiosity, employees become more excited about their work and take ownership of what they produce. Because employees in a curiosity-driven work environment feel empowered to explore ideas, they’re more committed to the actual work. Through this renewed sense of commitment, you can expect to see results that produce new opportunities.
3. Curiosity makes you flexible.
Curiosity is openness to what’s possible. When you are genuinely curious, you are less susceptible to “confirmation bias,” the phenomenon in which people tend to find information that only supports what they already believe, while dismissing information that doesn’t suit their forgone conclusions. Confirmation bias has a lot of negative implications, but in business, it stunts growth and prevents people from finding solutions because they can’t think past their initial impression.
When people develop the habit of genuinely exploring ideas, they are more likely to find surprising, innovative solutions. They are also more likely to respond curiously to new information and situations, rather than shut down. Employees who are intellectually flexible are able to respond to changing situations, to foresee and react to possible complications and identify solutions.
This flexibility has another component. Curious people also make better co-workers because they are interested in others. They are less likely to pigeonhole people based on stereotypes or appearances. These qualities are not just desirable–they are essential. Anyone who has ever worked in a space where people were uninterested in or dismissive of each other knows how that kind of environment can bring creativity and productivity to a standstill.
When you encourage curiosity you foster a working environment where people are valued by one another for their unique contributions, which makes for better relationships and more productive collaborations.
How to foster curiosity in your business
This is where we get into the nitty-gritty of “how,” so if you’re crunched for time, here’s your TLDR:
- Create an environment that invites inquiry
- Guide employees in asking questions about their own work, the company, and its processes
- Create learning-based goals
- Challenging learning-based goals encourage curiosity
- Learning-based goals get better results than performance goals
- Model questioning and mindful response
- Leaders should model questioning behaviors
- Provide responses to ideas and questions that open up conversation
- A final tip
- See your team’s new questioning habits as positive
That’s it, in a nutshell. Now, let’s get into the details.
1. Create an environment that invites inquiry
Developing curiosity, like any other habit of mind, requires practice. Yes, it may be true that some people have more “natural” curiosity than others
In a study of curiosity in business done by Harvard Business School, Francesca Gino sent a text to a group of employees who were her test subjects and asked them the following questions:
“What is one topic or activity you are curious about today? What is one thing you usually take for granted that you want to ask about? Please make sure you ask a few ‘Why questions’ as you engage with your work throughout the day. Please set aside a few minutes to identify how you’ll approach your work today with these questions in mind.”
An employee can’t respond passively to these prompts–creating questions requires exercising your curiosity. The employees that received these texts ended up scoring higher on an assessment of innovative behaviors at work. But this is just an example of the kinds of questions that could be used to get employees into the habit of being curious. Any sort of prompt that asks employees to question something they might normally take for granted, or think about something they’ve wondered about but not put into words, fosters this way of thinking.
2. Create learning-based goals
There’s increasing evidence that a focus on learning based goals, and a decreased focus on performance goals leads to better outcomes. So what are learning-based goals, and how do they relate to curiosity?
Learning-based goals focus on the skills being mastered instead of the outcome to be achieved. Whereas performance goals are things like hitting target numbers or making the most calls, learning based goals are things like figuring out how to use a workflow software more effectively, or improving your public speaking. Underlying a learning based-goal is always the question of “what can I learn?”, and a focus on mastering a skill.
The problem with performance goals is that when we put too much emphasis on the outcome rather than the skills and process, we discourage questioning. If all anyone is thinking about is how to hit a target, they cease to be curious about the best way to hit it, and avoid mistakes at all costs. And avoiding mistakes at all costs is the enemy of curiosity and learning in general.
Don VandeWalle conducted a study at Southern Methodist University that found sales professionals who focused on ways to become a better salesperson out-performed sales professionals who were focused on meeting target sales numbers.
Similarly, in a study published in the Academy Management Executive, researchers used a business simulator to test the effects of learning goals for sales professionals. According to their results, “Performance was highest for individuals with a specific high learning goal. The market share achieved by those with a learning goal was almost twice as high as those with a performance outcome goal.”
Researchers found similar results when looking at outcomes for employees with learning-based goals in other professions as well, such as the U.S. Air Force.
Though performance-based goals can be motivating in some situations, a growing amount of research shows that learning-based goals actually achieve better results.
3. Model questioning and mindful response
If you want to encourage curiosity as a leader, it’s important to model questioning in your work. This means slowing down sometimes and explaining your thought processes and the questions you pose to yourself when attempting to solve a problem. It’s a way of showing your team curious thinking in action. Be honest when you encounter roadblocks to solving problems, and don’t avoid talking about past failures. Again, perfectionism is the enemy of curiosity.
Also, think about the way that you and your team respond to new ideas and questions during meetings. Keep your responses open ended, and encourage others to add on to the idea, rather than form a judgement about it.
4. A final tip…
Any parent or teacher can tell you about this moment of dissonance: after encouraging curiosity or questioning in the people you teach, you suddenly find yourself feeling defensive when your own ideas or choices are questioned.
Curious people are not “yes-men.” If you encourage curiosity, they will be more open to new ideas and initiatives, but they will also question and critique them. Of course, if you’re reading this, you’re not interested in yes-men. But if you’re used to being a leader, and you’re just introducing a focus on inquiry and curiosity into your work culture, you might find yourself shutting down questioning as a knee-jerk reaction. Or you might see others on your team doing this.
Resist the temptation to undo your good work. See questions as a sign of curiosity, rather than a challenge or a lack of faith in your vision. Actively listen.
The rewards for a culture of curiosity are tangible and have a positive impact on every facet of your business. You will see it in your bottom line, and you will see it in the quality of your working life.
Looking for more ways to get your business growing and thriving? Contact Iconic Digital for creative marketing solutions that produce real results.
And if you want to read more about the case for curiosity, we got a lot of the information for this blog from an article in the Harvard Business Review. Check it out here.