What is Changemaker Curiosity?
Curiosity’s bad reputation
Nobody sticks up their hand and says, “I’m against curiosity.” But the truth is: they’re suspicious of it.
They don’t think about it as a powerful way to build individual or organizational capacities. And even as their leaders might pay lip service to the idea of having a “learning culture” or encouraging “innovation,” most businesses are skeptical of curiosity as an integral capability.
Some of this skepticism comes from the narrow way in which curiosity is typically defined: as a kind of Troublemaker tendency. Fuelled by mischief and sparked by prohibition, this is the kind of curiosity that killed the so-called cat. It’s counterproductive in an organization, and even when it is seen as potentially fruitful, it’s singled out as both a distinctly different way of approaching work (something that gets its own 20% time), and as a luxury employees ought not take for granted. When you put a stopwatch and a singular stock on it, and distinguish it from the usual business of getting things done, it’s no wonder curiosity comes to be regarded with suspicion.
Curiosity’s good side
But curiosity, the right type of curiosity unleashed, is a leadership strength. It drives the flywheel of results through innovation, engagement and resilience.
This is Changemaker curiosity. It weaves together seven distinct outcomes to drive organizational success.
Changemaker curiosity starts with a desire to know something, but rather than being satisfied by getting answers, it creates a virtuous cycle because it is driven by what author Ian Leslie calls “why or how” questions.¹
This type of curiosity results in an intellectual humility that allows us to imagine the possibility of explanations beyond what we think. It may involve inquiring about what the asker finds intriguing or of interest, or what it might take to solve a mystery.
A series of studies covered in Scientific American found that wonder and awe are commonly “the emotional signatures” of curiosity — and wonder and awe are also typically humbling experiences that involve understanding the perspectives and reactions of others.² This kind of curious exploration embraces holding space and asking questions that don’t necessarily serve the asker’s own interests.
This is because when we’re exploring in a curious capacity, we aren’t looking to confirm an already-held belief, and we’re not looking to possess knowledge in order to exert control. And if it’s the case (and it is) that when “low-curiosity” individuals are given the choice they opt for familiar evidence consistent with what they already believe, then it is not difficult to imagine the shortcomings for leaders. For example, when we think about how leaders (and everyone, really) go about making decisions about what’s true, what’s most important, what’s the real challenge and how to best solve those challenges … it’s not difficult to see why being “low-curiosity” is problematic for organizations.
The four enemies that block Changemaker curiosity
There are a number of barriers to curious thinking. Despite good intentions, individual and collective behaviours, along with organizational maturity and processes, can work to undermine the maintenance and/or cultivation of a truly curiosity-led culture.
As smaller companies grow into bigger corporations, they tend to relax their efforts (does that sound like your own personal growth trajectory?). Satya Nadella’s reinvigoration of the culture at Microsoft is a perfect example of this: a “company man,” Nadella saw the issues born from growth and control from the inside, and saw also that what had become a form of incuriosity about their market became a real threat to the business. There are endless resources for hearing Nadella’s story of Microsoft’s journey to being more curiosity-led, as they transform from a “know-it-all” to a “learn-it-all” culture.
In 2019, American business executive and CEO of SurveyMonkey Zander Lurie wrote about his company’s chief research officer’s TEDx talk on the subject. He called curiosity a “superpower,” saying that, “When curiosity ebbs, people lapse into routine and complacency, which exposes a company to disruption. To prevent that, managers should continually emphasize how important curiosity is — and reward people for developing it.”³ Complacency effectively dampens the spark that curiosity needs to develop.
Most senior leaders think they have a curious culture already. Indeed, “83% of C-level or president-level executives say curiosity is encouraged ‘a great deal’ or ‘a good amount’ at their company. Just 52% of individual contributors say the same,”⁴ according to a study referenced in HBR. In other words, most leaders believe that their organizational state supports curiosity, but opening up this question to the rest of the organization quickly challenges this position. It turns out that where you sit in an organization profoundly affects how you view the culture.
Plus, while researchers have found learning environments to be conducive to and catalysts for curiosity, most organizations (even as they embrace the value of having a growth mindset) continue to prioritize performance over learning. That is, rather than foster a culture in which failure is part of the process of growth and discovery, most organizations are focused on performance to the detriment of real learning, which almost always comes with failure. Relatedly, we know that a lack of psychological safety (and physical and/or financial safety, for that matter) will dry up curious behaviours if not eliminating the instinct entirely.
This discrepancy between what is said and what is actually done is likely because while an organization might officially encourage people to be curious, there are a number of practical barriers to asking questions. These include fear of losing face (or conversely: the need to maintain the status we associate with knowing good answers rather than asking great questions), plain old busyness (it’s faster to just skip the inquiry part, right?) and a learned inability to ask questions. As Ian Leslie points out, the abundance of information at our fingertips and the quick access to easy answers means that we’re forgetting how to ask questions.⁵
Since we know that curiosity is a state and not simply a trait, organizations have a duty to not only encourage curiosity in individuals, but also (and perhaps more importantly) to foster an open learning culture that we know supports and fuels curiosity in the first place. And just as educators work to cultivate learning and teaching practices that encourage curiosity and persistence in their students, so too should organizations create environments that attract, nurture and reward insatiable learners who energetically respond and adapt to change and who are collaborative and optimistic about what their forms of inquiry will unravel.
The Advice Monster
While there are real benefits to cultivating curiosity in our organizations, at the individual level, there is seemingly a real dark side to curiosity. It’s just really hard to stay curious because there are a lot of short-term benefits to giving advice, making assumptions and to skipping the time (and humility) it takes to sit in mystery a little longer. In acknowledging our relationship to what is unknown, curiosity is singularly disarming: It betrays our imperfect reasoning, it makes us vulnerable to others (in this way, it’s also revealing) and it reminds us that we’re in a state of exploration. It’s a way of giving up power, and of acknowledging the unknown … which is admittedly terrifying.
We know that one of the primary things that gets in the way of curiosity is the ingrained and seemingly rewarding habit of advice-giving. At Box of Crayons, we teach the value of setting aside the impulses that drive advice- and assumption-driven behaviours, and instead help people in organizations to develop the capacity to hold the space for various forms of inquiry because we believe curiosity-led cultures are more resilient, innovative and successful.
Why curiosity today?
Now more than ever, organizations need curiosity in the workplace to build new problem-solving muscles, reach longer-term solutions and achieve enterprise goals. For organizational partners already committed to providing a supportive space for cultural transformation, we help motivate and teach the skills needed so teams can harness the power of curiosity, innovate and succeed.
To learn more about how Box of Crayons can transform your organization from advice-drive to curiosity-led:
¹ Leslie, I. (2014). Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It. London, England: Quercus.
² Kahan, D. M. (2018). Why smart people are vulnerable to putting tribe before truth. Scientific American. Retrieved from https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/why-smart-people-are-vulnerable-to-putting-tribe-before-truth/
³ Lurie, Z. (2019). SurveyMonkey’s CEO on creating a culture of curiosity. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2019/01/surveymonkeys-ceo-on-creating-a-culture-of-curiosity
⁴ Harrison, S., Pinkus, E. & Cohen, J. (2018). Research: 83% of executives say they encourage curiosity. Just 52% of employees agree. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2018/09/research-83-of-executives-say-they-encourage-curiosity-just-52-of-employees-agree’
⁵ Peppers, D. (2018). There are 2 kinds of curiosity. Only one of them is good for your business. Inc. Retrieved from https://www.inc.com/linkedin/don-peppers/do-you-have-right-kind-curiosity-don-peppers.html?cid=search