“The future belongs to people who see possibilities before they become obvious” (Ted Levitt)

Curiosity is a leadership trait that can transform a business to achieve extraordinary results. While some leaders seem to think that when they have found a solution to a particular problem they can stop looking for new ideas, great leaders carry on pursuing the new and the better tirelessly. Most of the breakthrough discoveries and remarkable inventions throughout history, from flints for starting a fire to driverless cars, have curiosity as their common denominator. The impulse to seek information and explore novel possibilities is a basic human attribute and should be cultivated and encouraged at work.

While stimulating curiosity seems an obvious strategy for a leader, very few leaders actually encourage inquisitive minds. In a recent survey conducted by Francesca Gino, the Tandon Family Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, of more than 3 000 employees from a wide variety of businesses and industries, only 24% reported feeling curious in their jobs on a regular basis and about 70% felt that they faced barriers to asking more questions at work. According to Gino, there are apparently two tendencies that restrain leaders from encouraging curiosity:

  • They have the wrong mind-set about exploration – leaders thinking that letting employees follow their curiosity will lead to a costly mess. They therefore shy away from disagreement and opposing ideas for fear that making decisions would slow down, raising the cost of doing business.
  • They seek efficiency to the detriment of exploration – Ford’s focus on efficiency initially led to their Model T capturing 56% of the car market, but their single-minded focus on efficiency at the exclusion of further experimentation and innovation eventually led to other competitors capturing the market.

Alison Horstmeyer, Research Fellow at USC Annenberg Center for Third Space Thinking, notes the following as a result of her PhD research: “I cannot think of a more critical time for each of us to activate our curiosity. We are working in a time of significant upheaval. When our world challenges us as it is now, our survival reaction is to cling to what we know because it gives us the illusion of safety, clinging to a narrative that leaves us further entrenched in conformist and legacy thinking, approaches and systems, self-preservation practices and social mimicry. We can’t adapt. Curiosity is innate, multi-faceted and empirically defined as the recognition, pursuit and desire to explore novel, uncertain, complex and ambiguous events. How can we adeptly navigate the world without curiosity? Simply stated, we cannot”.

Horstmeyer further notes: “A level of conformity is not necessarily a bad thing. A moderate level of conformity can provide organizational stability. However, because conformity generally is about preservation, the research shows it negatively impacts openness to change. This means we can remain in the status quo and forego experimentation. If we are not open to change, exploring and experimenting, we are limiting our potential. When we lean in to unlearn old ways of doing and explore beyond the borders of what we currently know or is familiar to us, that’s when profound possibilities can emerge”.

Leaders should embed a spirit of curiosity that thrives on intellectual diversity within the organisational culture. Breakthrough solutions require fresh thinking and curiosity drives the exploration of the unknown. What we currently know, however, can get in the way of the unknown and the pursuit of phenomenal solutions. The leader’s ability to enact curiosity, therefore, will help to create a culture that encourages everyone to ask questions.

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