Curiosity and Being Current: Why it's More Important Now and Should Increase With Age and Experience
When we asked friends and colleagues what's the most important skill for consistent and continued success in business, they gave a multiplicity of answers including leadership and management skills, brains, and creativity. However the leading response from this group was curiosity. Many defined curiosity as the impulse to seek new information and experiences, the desire to keep current and, as one colleague answered, the desire to see around corners. Curiosity is a basic human instinct and a basic human trait. In a recent Harvard Business Review article, “The Business Case for Curiosity,” Francesca Gino looks at the role curiosity plays and has played in the business environment. According to Professor Gino:
“Curiosity is much more important to an enterprise’s performance than was previously thought. That’s because cultivating it at all levels helps leaders and their employees adapt to uncertain market conditions and external pressures: when our curiosity is triggered, we think more deeply and rationally about decisions and come up with more creative solutions. In addition, curiosity allows leaders to gain more respect from their followers and inspires employees to develop more trusting and more collaborative relationships with colleagues.”
Professor Gino goes on to argue that making relatively minor changes to the design of overall or functional organizations — and therefore the way that individuals must shift their management scope or style — encourages curiosity by both staff and management. Yet the unfortunate reality is that many leaders say they treasure inquisitive minds while actually doing things to stifle curiosity based on the fear of making mistakes or failing. Some leaders believe allowing employees to explore their curiosity will lead to a costly mess. Others in this same situation place the need for efficiency over exploration. Not surprisingly, research indicates that the longer one is in the same scope position, the less curious one becomes. We've seen this with numerous employees who are assigned to a particular account or work at a specific retail store for extended periods of time. Unsurprisingly, these individuals become “set in their ways,” a rather hackneyed phrase that seems to describe the situation. The longer one does something, the more familiar and routine it becomes. Routine, however, becomes the enemy of curiosity and creates a comfort level that interferes with forward thinking or experimentation.
Ways to Bolster Curiosity
There are definitely a number of ways to foster curiosity. First, simply hire curious employees. Companies like Google and IDEO have specific interview techniques that gauge one’s tendency to be curious and inventive. Their business models depend on creativity and risk taking, and both companies believe curiosity is a critical factor for success in their environments. Seeking out curiosity will ensure a pipeline of curious people. Simple.
Another way to ensure a curious environment is to model inquisitiveness at all levels. Leaders can encourage curiosity by being inquisitive themselves. Ask questions and genuinely listen to the responses. Listening is actually more important than talking. This may seem intuitive, but how many of us have had leaders who listen more than they talk? I suspect the answer is “not many.” Professor Gino notes:
“ … 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. It’s bad advice.” (HBR, Sept./Oct., 2018.)
Often, leaders are more reluctant to ask questions. They may be fearful of looking indecisive or incompetent. Furthermore, leaders don’t ask questions because as they ascend the corporate ladder they increasingly believe they have all the answers. They believe they're meant to talk and provide answers rather than ask questions. And some things like this never seem to change, no matter what's written.
Organizations can foster curiosity by giving employees time and resources to explore their interests and find ways to align their interests to the future of the business. Some companies, including Nike, offer paid sabbaticals for tenured employees, allowing these employees to take a couple of months to do something completely different, as long as they come back reinvigorated and full of new ideas. Other companies encourage employees to cross-train or become members of cross-functional teams. Unfortunately, these practices aren't broadly shared. According to the Society for Human Resource Management’s 2017 Employee Benefits report, only 44 percent of organizations provide or support consistent cross-training to develop skills not related to the current job skills of the employee. What a waste of potential talent and brain power!
Children often ask “Why?” They aren’t afraid of asking questions because they don’t have enough experience to filter out the desire to know about their surroundings, things that are different, and ideas that come to mind. As children grow older their self-consciousness increases and this seems to overshadow their asking “Why.” By the time we're adults, we've often “successfully” suppressed our curiosity. Yet the curious mind is the one that continues to grow. And this contradiction becomes a significant challenge in the workplace. We're not arguing that organizations should be “free-for-all environments.” However, many, particularly mature companies, stifle the same creativity that ultimately impedes growth. Organizations that encourage “What, If and How” offer a different way of thinking that tends to foster curiosity and seek out more innovation and decrease levels of stagnation.
How Does This Relate to Baby Boomers?
So, where do baby boomers fit into this world of curiosity or the lack of it? From our own experiences and discussions/observations about many of our colleagues, we offer this hypothesis:
Baby boomers began as very curious beings. Many ascended and enjoyed long, lucrative careers. Many were those long-tenured employees who remained with the same company and mostly in the same industry. Many became quite comfortable and subject to a routine, yet many lost that strong sense of curiosity along the way. Then the unexpected happened. Their companies downsized or were subjected to industry shifts. Technology created change at a rapid pace. Many boomers were faced with “forced” retirements or layoffs. Many found themselves in situations where they were no longer secure and were increasingly faced with “the great unknown.” Many simply didn't know what to do. But some, and the numbers are increasing, re-ignited their creative skills and dialed up their curiosity to find other meaningful endeavors in which to use their talents.
We argue that those baby boomers who have re-invented themselves and continue to be part of organizations co-existing with other generations are more satisfied and more productive, and more of a resource to the companies they join. One of the authors of this article knew of someone who had been in sales at 3M for over 30 years. This highly successful individual was faced with the realities of shifting business practices and downsizing. After the shock of being out of an organization that was almost his home, he asked “what am I going to do next?” Then he shifted to asking himself questions about what was important: how he could give back to society? How he could continue to make a difference. He shifted to a new and less management-oriented position, where he works with youth and helps to focus kids at a moldable age. The point is that no matter what, curiosity is imperative for continued growth, and continued growth is imperative for health and well-being, whether for individuals or for companies.
There are a few other tendencies that occur as we grow into our more mature stages and attempt to return to a more curious stage. We may be more curious but many are also less tolerant. Our current society seems to thrive on this so-called honesty. We may tend to be more honest (read as blunt) and use fewer filters. We may desire to grow, but at our own pace and based on our own terms. We rationalize our behavior as we believe we've earned the right to speak as we choose.
However, being smart and experienced doesn't mean we still can be less mindful of civility and empathy, of listening and learning. Research indicates that highly empathetic people also tend to be very curious. So where's the current disconnect? We can be less tolerant of what we deem to be unacceptable or wasteful, yet still maintain our ability to respect others. Whether we're middle school bus drivers, Walmart greeters, entrepreneurs, scientists, executives or CEOs who translate passion into business action, we seek continued growth and must continue to exhibit a profound curiosity. That being said, it's fine to move at our own speed and with a certain disregard for specific rules; however, remember that others may be listening to learn and that makes delivery of the message as important as the message itself.
A little too much moralizing? Maybe; however, worth a mention.