Valuing Curiosity in Business


Curiosity fundamentally conflicts with the scalable efficiency model that dominates virtually all of our institutions – we anticipate a big shift from scalable efficiency to scalable learning driven by a changing economic environmentJohn Hagel

Curiosity is one of those qualities in business that most of us recognise as having value yet few businesses actually do anything to recognise or support. Many organisations are in fact very efficient curiosity-killers, developing policies and ways of working that actively squash any inclination by their staff to explore. No-one is given any time to dedicate to it, few have serious strategies in place to support it, the prioritisation of the business acts against it. 

Research conducted by behavioral scientist and Harvard Business School Professor Francesca Gino showed that out of 3,000 employees surveyed from a wide range of industries, only 24% reported feeling curious in their jobs on a regular basis. Moreover 70% of respondents said that they face barriers to asking more questions at work. 

And yet there is a solid business case for the value of curiosity. Francesca Gino’s research has also shown that greater curiosity results in fewer decision-making errors (we’re more likely to think deeper about decisions, and be less susceptible to confirmation bias or stereotyping) and more innovative approaches. Other research by her has indicated that when evaluating staff, natural curiosity in employees was associated by bosses with better job performance, and that curiosity helped people to be less defensive, to increase open communication and empathy, reduce group conflict and improve team performance. Work by Spencer Harrison, Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour at INSEAD, has demonstrated that curiosity boosts creativity (even in relatively structured roles such as those in a call centre). 92% of respondents in that 3,000 person survey by Francesco Gino regarded curiosity as a catalyst for motivation, job satisfaction, high performance and innovation.

What’s interesting though is how much the attitudes of leaders and employees diverge. A big study by Spencer Harrison in collaboration with SurveyMonkey which surveyed more than 23,000 people (including 16,000 employees and 1,500 C-Suite leaders) found that whilst 83% of senior leaders said that curiosity is encouraged in their company ‘a great deal’ or ‘a good amount’, only 52% of employees felt the same. An amazing 81% of lower-level staff believed that curiosity made no material difference in their compensation.

Clearly senior leaders in many organisations believe that they are supporting and encouraging this attribute when the reality is very different. It’s easy to talk about simplistic fixes like ‘give employees more time to explore’, but I believe the answer needs to be more systemic than that.

Spencer Harrison talks about the importance of identity, and encouraging individuals to bring their interests with them into the workplace. And I believe there is something very powerful in creating an environment where people can really be themselves and do their best work. But it’s a quality that will only thrive if it is genuinely integrated into organisational culture and that means that it needs to be continuously reflected and reinforced through the behaviours of leaders, the questions they ask, the attributes that they recognise and value. Businesses have to get better at de-prioritising low-value time spent and systematically opening up more time for exploration. In times of change and high unpredictability the businesses that will survive will be those that can explore and learn fastest. Curiosity is not a luxury, it is essential.

Thanks to Paul Jocelyn for pointing me at the John Hagel’s Tweet which inspired the post.

Photo by Bing Han on Unsplash


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