Something is killing curiosity in the American workplace—and if nothing is done to reverse the trend, the real casualty will be innovation.

No one is doing this deliberately, of course. But new research shows that curiosity is lagging in American workplaces, and by reversing some common managerial mistakes, leaders can unleash the problem-solving, possibility-creating power of curious people. Here are the top five ways leaders kill curiosity at work—often subconsciously—and how to reverse them.

1. That “dumb question” look.

Todd Kashdan
Source: Todd Kashdan

Four-year-olds ask 300 questions a day. By the time they're in middle school, the tally plummets to near zero. Now a new survey I helped Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany conduct to mark the 125th anniversary of its American operations found that 60 percent of workers say they face barriers in the workplace to exercising curiosity. Less than a quarter of workers (22%) describe themselves as curious, preferring such traditional descriptors as detail-oriented and organized. Curiosity begins with questions, and the employee’s reticence to ask them, like the middle schooler’s, is inextricably linked to the fear of others’ reactions. Few managers say “dumb question.” But the eye roll, the exasperated sigh or the snide remark—even the office culture that fails to go out of its way to encourage questions—can have the same discouraging effect.

Solution: Begin meetings with a reminder of what type of climate is ideal for courageous and creative ideas to emerge. When ideas are in their infancy, search for what is interesting and ask questions. They can be tough questions, as long as they arise from the desire to gain knowledge (curiosity) as opposed to the need to exert control or dominance (power), or the need to impress others with your ability to outsmart others (social status). Also, consider the benefit of responding with a “yes, and” approach, by attempting to find some bit of wisdom that you can build on as opposed to tear down.

2. Punishing failure.

Todd Kashdan
Source: Todd Kashdan

Curiosity means taking risks. Innovation is inseparable from it. That inevitably entails occasional failure, the fear of which is the mortal enemy of creativity. Yet only one in five workers in our survey strongly agree that their organization accepts that it is normal to be anxious when trying something new that might fail.

That doesn’t mean leaders need to abandon accountability. They need to establish cultures in which the reasonable risk of failure is understood to be the transactional cost of curiosity—that absorbing the occasional setback is worth the offsetting breakthroughs that result.

Solution: Tie feedback, merit and promotions to actions taken with both a short-term and long-term view. The long-view is about allowing people an opportunity to experiment and learn from results to foster innovation. Fear is a normal experience when you consider ideas that are distinct from what the competitors are doing or considering. The impulse is to hide from this discomfort; but, if you value creativity, you must reward people for being curious and courageous, irrespective of whether they succeed (what you care about is that their actions had a legitimate shot at creating great opportunities). These rewards must be explicit and if you want the culture to change, rewarded publicly.

3. Elevating process over results.

Organizations, especially large ones, need processes. But an obsessive focus on how people do things rather than on getting the job done suffocates creativity. Slightly more than a quarter of workers strongly agree that their employers provide enough flexibility to allow for original ways to get work done. But, there’s more work to do in allowing more creativity in how workers complete assignments.

Solution: Leaders should look at the end result and encourage curiosity about how best to attain it. If leaders want good work, they should give employees rules and maps. If leaders want great work, they should give employees an idea of what is of interest, a few constraints, and then let employees uncover the strategies and tactics that work best. Trust the people that you hired and trained—and give them autonomy.

4. Failing to demonstrate curiosity themselves.

The leader’s perceived need to always demonstrate command conveys a message that an organization values knowing the answers more than it does asking interesting questions—a sure formula for stagnation. At the most curious workplaces we surveyed, 60 percent described leaders as curious themselves. More than that—65 percent—said leaders viewed problems from multiple perspectives. 

That’s important for problem-solving, but also for modeling curious behavior. Curiosity needs champions, and that needs to start at the top. The willingness to ask questions in meetings, to say, “I don’t know, so let’s find out”—these are leadership traits as important as firm command.

Solution: Collect wisdom at least as often as you share it. You had plenty of role models as a kid, so you know full well that you should be on the receiving end of knowledge, skills and wisdom as an adult. Always listen to really smart people; even if they are wrong, you might learn something. In your social circle, have at least:

-one person older than you who is where you want to be in the future
-one peer who possesses strengths and accomplishments that you don't
-one person younger than you who is further along than you were at that age

5. Cultivating talent, not teams.

If curiosity starts with questions, it has to happen in teams. Just over a quarter of workers strongly agree that their company gives them opportunities to learn from interesting and bright people. By focusing on individuals over teams, we discourage questions.

Solution: The myth of the lone, curious creator must end. Thomas Edison did not test out 7,000 substances as potential filaments to create the first commercially viable light bulb. He hired a large team of engineers, physicists and machinists who were sent all over the world to find new materials, and experiment with them on Edison’s projects, for clients of their own, or side projects for fun. Edison hogged the spotlight and, as a result, inspired the next generation of leaders to believe that success hinges on drafting a single, superior person. Instead, the best organizations create the right project teams around diverse interests, skills, strengths and past experiences, and tweak these teams and the culture behind them as needed.

Todd Kashdan
Source: Todd Kashdan

We listed the five leadership behaviors that are barriers to curiosity. We demonstrated that each of the five is reversible. By moving in the opposite direction, leaders can build what they need: a culture of questioning, tolerance and experimentation that actively celebrates the exploration of the uncertain, unknown and unfamiliar. There are few situations when a hostile approach to curiosity will be of benefit in the short-term or long-term.

The good news is that curiosity is both innate and, within us, thriving. Our survey found extensive evidence for curiosity yearning to express itself. Managers do need to stop getting in the way. They also need to model how curiosity, courage and creativity are expressed in word and deed.

****Also read my Harvard Business Review article- Companies Value Curiosity but Stifle It Anyway​****

Dr. Todd B. Kashdan is Professor of Psychology and Senior Scientist at the Center for the Advancement of Well-Being at George Mason University.  He has been consulting with Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany on the measurement and study of curiosity. His new book explores the science and practice of how to tolerate, accept, and harness anxiety and stress to be more curious, courageous, and creative, titled: The upside of your dark side: Why being your whole self - not just your “good” self - drives success and fulfillment. More information can be found on his website: toddkashdan.com

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