How You Can Develop a Curious Workforce — and Reap the Benefits

June 12, 2019

Curiosity fares poorly in the business world. Like creativity, curiosity is something that every company says it wants from employees — before throwing up barriers to prevent or contain it.

Some of this is cultural. We have always viewed curiosity with skepticism. Our foundational stories, from Pandora to Adam and Eve, speak to the idea that folks will be punished for their curiosity.

But last fall the Harvard Business Review trumpeted the trait in a cover story entitled “The Business Case for Curiosity.”

HBR said that new research points to three critical insights:

  1. Curiosity is hugely important to a company’s performance
  2. Leaders can bolster curiosity (and, in so doing, performance)
  3. Most companies stifle curiosity, believing it will increase risk and inefficiency

HBR cited increased innovation, reduced group conflict, more candid communication, and better team performance as benefits of curiosity, and then offered five tactics to bolster the trait.

Curious? Read on:

1. Hire for curiosity

If you’re looking for employees who have an abiding fascination with the world, how will you know when you have a candidate who is deeply curious?

Start by asking candidates about a time when they went down the rabbit hole on a new topic. The hiring teams at Google ask candidates: “Have you ever found yourself unable to stop learning something you’ve never encountered before? Why? What kept you persistent?”

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Related: The Go-To Interview Questions of Companies Like Warby Parker, Airbnb and More

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Questions are the hallmark of curiosity. As you listen to a candidate’s answers, make sure you’re also absorbing their questions. Does your candidate have questions about you and your role? About other parts of your company? About why your company does things certain ways and not others?

Finally, there are now an array of online tools that use predictive assessment to measure behavioral attributes such as curiosity. Consider looking into the tests and games of companies such as Koru, The Predictive Index, and Plum.io.

2. Model inquisitiveness

Part of running a business is leading by example — the way you behave is likely to be the way your organization behaves.

In his book A Curious Mind, legendary film producer Brian Grazer writes: “If you’re the boss, and you manage by asking questions, you’re laying the foundation for the culture of your company or your group.”

Leaders who champion curiosity will find it has other benefits as well. “Curiosity is a magnet for valuable new information and a battering ram for self-imposed limits,” says Molly Fletcher, sports agent turned corporate change agent.

Another way to model curiosity is to be as engaged a listener as you are a talker. This requires humility. By actively listening to your employees and drawing them out with questions, you send a clear signal that you alone don’t have all the answers, perspectives, and insights your company needs.

3. Emphasize learning goals

As both employees and companies, we tend to favor the short term over the long term. And that can lead us to neglect learning goals for our teams while, instead, we focus on performance goals. But as we look for ways to reskill our workforces in the face of the current skills gaps, learning goals have many advantages.

Research shows that framing work around learning goals rather than performance goals increases motivation. “And when motivated by learning goals,” HBR says, “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.” Whew. What’s not to love?

And as employees draft potential learning goals, they have to think about their own career path, making them personally invested in their goals and their growth.

4. Let employees explore and broaden their interests

It used to be that bringing your side gigs or outside interests into the office was a surefire way to get reprimanded. But companies have started to see the upsides of encouraging employees to bring their whole selves to work.

Outside work, for example, may boost employee creativity. “Side gigs . . . can expose your employees to different people, processes, procedures, or vendors,” writes performance specialist Bonnie Monych.

Side hustles — when done for passion rather than to pay the rent — can also increase employee engagement and reduce burnout and attrition. And the dangers of losing an employee to their second job is small. In a survey two years ago, CareerBuilder found that 71% of employees with a side gig don’t want to pursue it full time.

MRY, a powerhouse creative agency based in New York City, actually tries to help its employees pursue their dream careers: “For example, if an employee wants to be a sports broadcaster, then MRY will help the employee get more experience presenting in front of groups.” The result of that counterintuitive approach? Higher retention.

There are many ways to seamlessly integrate the nonwork passions of your workforce into the workplace. Sponsor company teams — softball, basketball, bowling, ultimate Frisbee. Support a company choir, book club, or Toastmasters group. You can also nurture their outside interests by offering paid time off to volunteer, whether they’re mentoring young readers or rebuilding wetlands.

5. Have “Why?” “What if . . .?” and “How might we . . . ?” days

“Organizing ‘Why?’ days, when employees are encouraged to ask that question if facing a challenge,” HBR says, “can go a long way toward fostering curiosity.”

At the same time you’re honoring curiosity with its own day, you want to make sure it also becomes central to the daily fabric of your company and its culture. In an essay extolling the virtues of curiosity, SurveyMonkey CEO Zander Lurie writes: “Create an environment of transparency and a safe space where all kinds of questions are valued.”

Zander also suggests both rewarding great questions and celebrating prudent risks that fail. “[O]therwise,” he adds, “you will create a culture where employees are risk averse, thereby limiting your upside.”

Final thoughts: Get comfortable with not knowing how and when you’ll get your biggest curiosity dividend

HBR says “most of the breakthrough discoveries and remarkable inventions throughout history” resulted from curiosity. Legendary and disruptive business leaders, from Walt Disney to Michael Dell, have stressed the importance of curiosity.

In his 2005 commencement address at Stanford, Steve Jobs also made a case for it. “[M]uch of what I stumbled into by following my curiosity and intuition turned out to be priceless later on,” Jobs said.

When he briefly attended Reed College, Jobs noted that every poster on campus was beautifully hand-calligraphed. After he dropped out, he registered for a calligraphy class to learn how he could do this. He learned many things, including what makes for great typography.

“None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life,” he told the Class of 2005. “But 10 years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography.”

It’s difficult, if not impossible, to plot out all the ways curiosity may lift your company. You need the patience of Jobs, who said, “You have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.”

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*Photo by Media Union on Shutterstock

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