cu·ri·os·i·ty

By: Jim Bruce
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… a strong desire to know or learn something


Previous Tuesday Readings have focused on curiosity,1,2,3 on the very related topic of asking questions,4,5 and the further related topic of psychological safety6 on numerous occasions. Given these six examples along with a larger number of additional Tuesday Readings focused on aspects of this topic I’ve not listed as References, you may be thinking, “Enough already. You’ve already said enough on this topic!”  And, I would have agreed with you until I saw Professor Francesca Gino’s article “The Business Case for Curiosity”7 in the October 2018 issue of the Harvard Business Review and listened to Curt Nickisch’s interview – “The Power of Curiosity”8 – of her on the HBR IdeaCast and concluded that there is more to be said.
 
In her article, Professor Gino, a behavioral scientist and the Tandon Family Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School, notes four benefits of being curious, three barriers to increasing curiosity, and five strategies that leaders can use to increase the curiosity in their organization. I believe this new knowledge is sufficiently important for us to return to the subject.
 
Benefits to Curiosity –

1.  Fewer decision-making errors. When we feel free to ask questions, we are less likely to trigger our confirmation biases. That is, we are less likely to focus primarily on information that supports our beliefs than look for broader information about the issue being considered. And, we are less likely to stereotype individuals because of race or gender or previous work. We don’t fall into these traps because curiosity leads us to look for alternatives.

  We’re more innovative and make more positive changes in both creative and noncreative jobs. Field studies conducted by Professor Gino as well as her colleagues at INSEAD, a world-renown business school located in France, have demonstrated that more curious workers, as well as those prompted to be curious, were more creative in addressing customer’s concerns, made more constructive suggestions for implementing solutions to existing problems, addressed new difficult situations more creatively, were less defensive in reacting to stress, and reacted less aggressively to provocation. Overall, supervisors found that natural curiosity was associated with better job performance.

3   Reduced group conflict. Gino’s research also discovered that curiosity encourages members of a group to place themselves in one another’s shoes and take a greater interest in the perspectives and ideas of others rather than focus only on their own. This results in more collaboration. There are fewer conflicts, less tension, and better results.

4.  More open communication and better team performance. “Working with executives in a leadership program at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, my (Gino’s) 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. The groups whose curiosity had been heightened performed better than the control groups because they shared information more openly and listened more carefully.”7
 
Barriers to Curiosity –
 
Gino notes that in spite of the benefits to curiosity, many organizations discourage it, explicitly or implicitly, by tight timelines, over scheduling, too many meetings, etc., so that there is no “free time” that might be used to explore alternative approaches or identify innovating ideas. In addition:

1.  Leaders may have the wrong mindset about exploration. Too often, formal and informal leaders think that encouraging curiosity will result in increased disagreements about the approach to solutions, slower decision making, etc. Yet, it may lead to better overall results.

2.  They seek efficiency to the detriment of exploration. Gino notes that Henry Ford’s initial efforts were focused on one goal – reducing production costs to create a car for the masses. By 1921, Ford was producing 56% of all the passenger cars in the United States. By the late 1920s, while Ford had stopped experimenting and innovating, General Motors captured the main share of the market with an array of models.

3.  Curiosity usually declines the longer we are in one job. As we become more familiar with a job, and as the pressures increase to be more productive, to complete our work quickly, we take little time to ask questions about either the goals or alternatives.
 
Ways to Increase Curiosity –

1.  Hire for curiosity. Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google said, “we run this company on questions, not answers.” IDEO seeks to hire people with deep technical skills and a predisposition for collaboration (which requires empathy and curiosity) across areas. Do your interview practices, especially the questions you ask, seek individuals with these skills? And, also carefully listen, with an open mindset, to the questions the candidates have. You may learn more from their questions than from the questions you ask.

2.  Model inquisitiveness. In her paper, Gino tells us about Greg Dyke who became the BBC’s managing director in 2000. Before he took office, he spent five months visiting BBC’s major locations. In each instance, he assembled the staff there and asked them one question: “What is the one thing I should do to make things better for you?” He listened carefully as they responded and then asked, “What is the one thing I should do to make things better for our viewers and listeners?” After he formally assumed his new responsibilities, he spoke to the staff reflecting on what he had learned and demonstrating his interest in what they had said. By asking questions, listening, and incorporating what he had learned into his plans, he modeled behaviors he wanted the organization to have. You could do a similar listening tour when you assume a new responsibility or your team takes on a new major project.

3.  Emphasize learning goals. Setting learning goals may be a personal trait, as it was for Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, who was always learning, preparing himself for the unexpected, always asking what he could do, given the available options. Or, it might be setting learning goals for your team members that help them develop competence, acquisition of new skills, mastering new situations, etc. When we are motivated to learn, we acquire new skills, do better work, are better at problem solving, etc.  Leaders can also emphasize the value of learning by reacting positively to ideas that are put forward, using the initial idea as a springboard to an even better idea. At Pixar, they call this “plussing” which involves building on ideas without using judgmental language
 
4.  Encourage employees to explore and broaden their interests. This may mean encouraging them to take formal classes or attend workshops, or providing released time to work on ideas associated with future systems, etc. It also might take the form of encouraging and helping staff to expand their relationship networks.
 

5.  Have “Why?” “What if …?” and “How might we …?” days. The question Edwin Land’s daughter asked after he had taken a picture was “Why do we have to wait for the picture?” This led to Land’s invention of self-developing film and the founding of the Polaroid Corporation. “Why?” is the never-ending question of young children. They are not afraid to ask. However, by the age of 4 or 5 their curiosity begins to wane. As leaders we need to draw-out this innate curiosity by the way we structure our conversations. Robert Langer, Institute Professor at MIT and noted inventor, argues that leaders should teach their employees how to ask good questions. He argues that everyone needs to make a transition from giving good answers to asking good questions.
 
Gino concludes her essay by arguing that leaders must cultivate curiosity, must help those they lead move away from the implicit belief that questions represent an unwanted challenge to their authority. She wants leaders to maintain and instill in others that sense of wonder that is essential to creativity and innovation. Leaders seek ways to nurture their team’s curiosity for learning and discovery.
 
Let’s take this another step forward. So how does a leader support her or his staff in their stepping up to be more curious? Erika Andersen, Founding Partner of Proteus, a coaching, consulting, and training firm that focuses on leader readiness – in the HuffPost article “Get Curious: How to Learn Faster,”9 by Kevin Kruse – notes that as a little kid each of us had a relentless urge to understand and to master. However, she continues, we get socialized out of that as we get older. Andersen says that the difference between a four-year-old and a 14-year old is that the four-year-old will say, “Oh, explain that to me. Why does that happen?” And, a 14-year-old will say, “Oh, no, I know more about that than you do, and I’m probably a lot smarter than you are.” And, it only gets worse as we grow older. No one will say I don’t understand; will you explain it to me.
 
So, it’s the responsibility of the leader to personally re-engage and to help those around her or him re-engage with their childhood curiosity. 
 
You, as a leader, formal or informal, need to model the missing childhood curiosity. To do this you need to create a sense of psychological safety that makes it safe to ask questions and to make mistakes. The leader needs to be vulnerable and be willing in a meeting or a conversation to say, “Will you explain that again? Can you use different words? I’m not sure I understand that.” Or, “Can you tell me much more about that? I don’t have much experience in that area.” If you as leader step up and admit you don’t know, it frees others to ask questions and over time everyone will become willing to ask these types of questions and you get, as a result, a robust learning environment.
 
However, as Anderson warns, if the leader doesn’t actively model the environment that he or she wants – really needs – to create, it simply won’t happen.  He or she has to actively create the environment saying that it is safe. Will you begin, this week, to create an environment where curiosity is the norm. I hope that you will.
 
Make it a great week for you and your team.  .  .  .  jim
 
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates.  He previously was Professor of Electrical Engineering, and Vice President for Information Systems and CIO at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.
 
 
References:

  1. James Bruce, Curiosity, Tuesday Reading, MOR Associates, June 7, 2016.
  2. James Bruce, Curiosity and Leadership, Tuesday Reading MOR Associates, July 22, 2014.
  3. Jill Purdy, It Began with Curiosity, Tuesday Reading, MOR Associates, July 18, 2017.
  4. James Bruce, Questions, Tuesday Reading, MOR Associates, February 28, 2017.
  5. James Bruce, Asking Questions, Tuesday Reading, MOR Associates, May 3, 2016.
  6. James Bruce, Psychological Safety, Tuesday Reading, MOR Associates, February 27, 2018.
  7. Francesca Gino, The Business Case for Curiosity, The Harvard Business Review, September-October 2018.
  8. Francesca Gino, The Power of Curiosity, HBR IdeaCast, October 2018.
  9. Kevin Kruse, Get Curious: How To Learn Faster, HuffPost, June 27, 2017.
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