“A society that values order above all else will seek to suppress curiosity. But a society that believes in progress, innovation, and creativity will cultivate it, recognizing that the inquiring minds of its people constitute its most valuable asset,” wrote Ian Leslie in his inspirational book on the power of curiosity in propelling us forward.
In my many years of interviewing, hiring, and managing people, I’ve consistently found curiosity to be the most underrated quality in an employee.
Integrity is critical. We need to trust peoples’ decision-making ethics. While it may not accomplish anything on its own, a lack of integrity disqualifies everything else.
And work ethic is essential. We want people who will push through the difficulties they’re sure to encounter.
But third – and most uncommon – is curiosity. With enough curiosity, we can learn nearly anything. It’s the spark behind the spark of every great idea and major breakthrough. It admits that we don’t have all the answers. And recognizes that not only is this okay, it’s essential to growth.
This isn’t a new concept. Many companies do recognize the inherent value of encouraging curiosity and want to drive a healthy level of skepticism towards the status quo. Yet we still struggle to implement this trait – too often trading it for the relative safety of procedures and past precedent.
It’s easy to blame this mindset on an outdated educational system, online echo chambers, and right-wing political pundits. Yet too many of our companies are also contributing to the problem, often without even realizing it.
Curiosity Empowerment is Not the Answer
“The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.” – Albert Einstein
In a recent study of over 23,000 people, 83% of senior managers said curiosity was encouraged at their companies. Unfortunately, only 52% of their employees said the same. Even worse, a shocking 81% of employees said that curiosity has no impact on their compensation.
These senior managers weren’t lying. Well, maybe some of them were. I mean, there’s likely to be some lawyers in the mix. But the majority recognize the value that curiosity brings to an organization and truly believed that their company was encouraging this behavior.
Yet if this encouragement isn’t making its way to the individual contributors, it’s all for naught. Companies are built and thrive based on the people who add hands-on value every day. If that group doesn’t believe curiosity is encouraged, they’re unlikely to delve into new information and push the bounds of new opportunities.
As the rift continues to widen between senior management intentions and the actual message that makes its way to the people on the front lines, we need to consider whether we’re looking at this in the wrong way. We’ve become focused on empowering our employees to be creative, yet we forget that the only reason we need to empower someone is because we’ve previously disempowered them.
Maybe instead of lining the halls with motivational posters and offering lip service to the notion of curiosity, we should just focus on avoiding the behaviors that are stifling it. And make sure the message we want to send is the one that actually comes across.
And more than anything, I think this all comes down to whether we take a long or a short view on risk.
A Long View on Risk
“He who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life.” – Muhammad Ali
Imagine that you have the following pair of decisions:
Decision 1: Choose between
A: a sure gain of $240
B: a 25% chance to gain $1000 and 75% chance to gain nothing.
Decision 2: Choose between
C: a sure loss of $750
D: a 75% chance to lose $1000 and 25% chance to lose nothing.
The vast majority of people will choose the combination of options A and D, taking a sure gain and avoiding a sure loss. And yet, the pairing A and D result in a worse likelihood of success than the BC combination.
We tend to be risk averse in the area of potential gains yet risk seeking when facing a potential loss. Which is understandable. It’s linked to an emotional desire to avoid loss in general – even the perceived loss of a potential sure gain. Yet this reaction also limits us and blinds us to the long-term view. As Daniel Kahneman described the results of this experiment,
“It is costly to be risk averse for gains and risk seeking for losses. These attitudes make you willing to pay a premium to obtain a sure gain rather than face a gamble, and also willing to pay a premium (in expected value) to avoid a sure loss. Both payments come out of the same pocket, and when you face both kinds of problems at once, the discrepant attitudes are unlikely to be optimal.”
When our default choice is driven by loss aversion, we make decisions that are driven by exaggerated caution. While this mindset protects us in the short-term, it limits our willingness to seek out new opportunities and maximize our potential benefit.
Consider another choice. Imagine that you face a chance that could, in equal probabilities, either double or halve your monetary contribution to your company. Would you take it?
Most people would say no. Because the consequence of delivering half of their expected value is far worse than the potential benefit of doubling it.
Yet if you asked your company’s CEO, she’d likely want everyone to take this risk. Because if everyone splits the odds, the company comes out well ahead.
People are frequently loss averse within their own domains. And this is natural. But this behavior – when performed throughout an organization – will discourage the overall organization from taking risks.
In each instance, our default response is to protect against loss in individual decisions. When we take this short view of risk, it’s easy to rationalize excessive caution and limit our overall risk posture. Yet this position, when repeated across multiple events, limits our potential to grow and expand.
If we want to encourage people to be more curious, it starts with redefining how the company encourages people to take risks. Instead of having everyone make these decisions in a vacuum, it’s up to the company leadership to take and encourage a long view – one that recognizes individual losses aren’t paralyzing as long as the company is moving in the right direction. Because in the long view, the benefits will outweigh the losses. Or in the wise words of Ed Catmull,
“It is not the manager’s job to prevent risks. It is the manager’s job to make it safe to take them.”
And the most important step in making it safe for people to take risks is to stop punishing people when they don’t work out.
A Long View on Failure
“Failure isn’t a necessary evil. In fact, it isn’t evil at all. It is a necessary consequence of doing something new.” – Ed Catmull, Creativity, Inc.
The fear of failure is curiosity’s mortal enemy. While I believe that most people are naturally curious, it’s this fear of negative repercussion that keeps them from pushing these boundaries.
How many people have been encouraged to take risks, only to be punished when they don’t work out? How many of these same people will take a risk again the next time?
When we take a long view on risks, we recognize that the chance of failure is the cost of curiosity. And that absorbing the occasional setback is worth the breakthroughs that come from encouraging risk and curiosity.
When organizations prioritize the desire for everything to go smoothly, they measure people on their ability to avoid mistakes as opposed to solve problems and create new opportunities. And it doesn’t take long for people to realize that the safest course of action is to maintain, not innovate. Follow directions, don’t ask questions.
The alternative is to take the long view on failure. To recognize that the large majority of successes don’t start out successful. They go through periods of struggles and setbacks before eventually finding their way to success. It’s the leader’s job to create an environment where people can work through these struggles until that eventual success can emerge. As the great Orson Welles put it,
“If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.”
I’m not suggesting that we lose accountability. People need to be responsible for their decisions. But the next time you’re confronted with someone who took a risk that didn’t work out, recognize that your response will not only influence their future behavior, but the behavior of the entire organization.
And with each failure that we punish, we push people towards a risk-averse – and curiosity-averse – mindset.
Curiosity Needs a Long View
“We are all lifelong learners, from day one to twenty-thousand-and-one, and that’s why we keep exploring, wondering and discovering, yearning and learning, reaching with more than just our hands… The future belongs to the curious.” – Skillshare Manifesto on Curiosity
Most managers recognize that you get what you measure. But more than that, you get what you celebrate. So if we really want to encourage curiosity, we need to ask ourselves – what exactly are we celebrating?
Successful organizations always have a culture of curiosity. In an ever-changing world, companies need employees at all levels to seek out new information and make new connections.
And people are naturally curious. Most employees want to dig into topics that interest them and gain more knowledge in areas that will help them make a bigger difference.
But if we’re creating environments that discourage risk and punish failure, why would we expect our people to embrace curiosity? The motivational posters just aren’t that convincing.
As leaders, it’s our responsibility to celebrate the behaviors that we want to see. To celebrate not just the successes and end results, but the entire process. And to recognize that risk and failure are necessary byproducts of an environment that encourages curiosity.
When we take a long view on risk and failure, it’s easier to see that change and uncertainty are a part of life. Our job then isn’t to avoid them, but to build the capacity to recover when things don’t go our way. And in a world where the one constant is change, creating this environment becomes one of our most critical leadership responsibilities.
Because the future truly does belong to the curious.