Creating an Environment to Boost Curiosity at Work

Curiosity is the mindset to challenge the status quo, explore, discover and learn. The right environment can contribute to boosting curiosity levels at organisations. In this article, Stefaan van Hooydonk explains how.

Curiosity is often mistakenly associated with children and animals. But the truth is that adults are also curious. The problem is that, due to bad experiences and external influences, adults are less willing to go all the way in the pursuit of closing an information gap. Experience has taught us not to stick our fingers in the hot fire.

But curiosity is not a gift, but a skill, which can be developed through training and practice – and it is accessible to all. Understanding how curiosity works and how to create an environment to nurture can help organisations maximise innovation, creativity and growth.

1. Understanding the 3 dimensions of curiosity

In essence, there are three key dimensions to curiosity in adults. The first is the curiosity to learn, which grows over time as we learn more. The second is our empathic curiosity, which is essentially our ability to put ourselves in the shoes of others, to be interested in their ideas, emotions, and reactions. Empathic curiosity is increasingly important in the workplace, as teams are driving projects, creating products, and delivering services. The more we care about others, the more the team flourishes. The third dimension of individual curiosity is our ability to go inward into ourselves and explore the deeper reasons why we react positively or negatively when faced with a given situation or a person. Self-reflective curiosity helps us uncover our conscious and unconscious drivers: our purpose, values, beliefs, limitations, and cognitive biases.

What is also clear from the research is that developing curiosity requires a conscious effort. Curiosity is like a muscle and, just like the physical body, the more we use it and train it, the stronger it gets. If we stop using it, it becomes weak and prone to be damaged.

Humans – and consequently organisations – are wired to prefer the comfortable feeling status quo over uncertain change. We are a confirmation-seeking species and are sensitive to the affirmation of our egos and the cohesiveness of our mental models. To develop curiosity, you need to break away from this pattern. A common trait of curious people is that they don’t seek confirmation of what they believe – they try to figure out what they are missing, what’s different and worthy of exploration. Curious people proactively try to prove themselves wrong.

2. Creating a nurturing work environment

While our upbringing, our genetic intellectual make-up, and our individual experience are important dimensions to explain our curiosity, they only contribute to about 50% of our curiosity levels. The other 50% are made up of external influences, particularly an environment that nurtures curiosity.

In the workplace, a nurturing environment can be created through all aspects of the ecosystem that surrounds the professional: the organisational culture, the team, the manager, people processes, and practices.

Given the change of pace in the economic fabric over the last 30 years, plus the recent Covid-19 crisis, it is clear at all levels of our organisations that managing our companies in a business-as-usual fashion will not set us up for the future. Therefore, investing in creating a nurturing environment can be vital in some cases: the opposite of curiosity is conformity.

The Global Curiosity Institute has developed two diagnostic tools to measure workplace curiosity: one measures the individual curiosity profile of professionals and the other measures the curiosity of a team or company. The organisational diagnostic tool evaluates curiosity through nine dimensions: manager relations and style, learning culture, diversity of curious individuals, curiosity processes and practices, culture of openness, psychological safety, the availability of role models, clarity of vision, innovation orientation/failure acceptance.

This tool has been administered in 16 multinational companies and a total of 500 professionals at different levels were studied. Among many findings, the research discovered that workplace curiosity in multinational companies can be a force to increase competitiveness, innovation, productivity, learning, and engagement, yet it is fragile if not managed intentionally.

The research found that multinational companies have a strong foundation to build on, yet they often create limiting barriers to curiosity. The executives that took part in the project highlighted that the main enablers of curiosity are (1) the management style of the direct supervisor, (2) individual curiosity levels and (3) psychological safety.

The same executives also say that there are many limitating factors such as (1) old processes and practices focusing on execution and exploration, not on experimentation and exploitation, (2) the innovation mindset of the organisation and its leadership, including a culture of failure acceptance, and (3) a culture of openness at management level to allow employees to challenge the status quo, ask questions and volunteer suggestions where it matters as well as inclusive communication across the organisation.

To add colour to this analysis:

– People in power are two times more inclined to say that their organisation is intentionally curious and recognises curious individuals versus non-manager professionals

– 90% of leaders says that is a good thing for an organisation to invest in curiosity to drive innovation, yet 50% of them say that innovation can detract the team from their focus on efficiency. Leaders are stating that curiosity is key and that innovation is vital for survival, yet they have not found a way to balance business-as-usual with an innovative exploration of the future.

3. Curiosity and employee demographics

The research also found that some employee demographics are more sensitive to curiosity at work than others:

– the case for empowering curiosity early on: Compared to older groups, under-30s feel twice less empowered to act and be curious and are twice less convinced that their company leadership is serious about innovation.

– the case to focus leadership development on mid-managers: The mid-management level in these companies don’t see much value in exploration at the expense of business-as-usual and are four times less sure that curiosity is important for the organisation when compared to their management peers (front line management and senior executives).

– the case for job rotation to keep people motivated: People who are three to five years in the same role have lower individual curiosity scores than people under three years. As well as becoming apathetic, data shows that they have become more negative: they are twice more critical about the incapacity of their environment to be curious versus freshers. People over five years in the same role become more positive, yet this is a false positive: they become careful and have surrendered to their situation while they are the lowest in suggesting changes and ideas.

– The case for diversity and inclusion: Women reported to have less time to be curious at work and indicate to receive less support for their professional development than their peers.

4. Creating role models

Finally, the research also found that the shadow of the leader is crucial in positively influencing the team.and if not, the leader can become an obstacle to a healthy culture of curiosity.

The role of the manager is crucial in creating the right culture in the team. Traits of curious leaders are (1) confident humility: openness to admit what they don’t know, while stimulating idea flows in the team; (2) high levels of individual curiosity: taking time and responsibility to keep up with the business and the team; (3) creating a curious and psychologically safe environment where failure is a source of learning, not something to be avoided; (4) the cognitive flexibility to know when to allow for and balance thinking vs doing and exploration vs business-as-usual.

Data shows that we still have some room for improvement. For instance, 80% of front-line managers are not using reverse feedback as a way to learn about their own functioning and set an example for confident humility. Further, there is a linear correlation between the learning behaviour of the manager and that of the team: the more the manager engages in intellectual curiosity: the more the team follows. If the manager stops learning, so does the team. Also, the two biggest barriers for curiosity as identified by individual contributors are top-down decision-making by the manager and the lack of time to be curious at work.


Stefaan van Hooydonk

Founder of Global Curiosity Institute

After building a distinguished career as CLO,learning innovator and strategist for multinational companies, Stefaan founded the Global Curiosity Institute where he and his team are supporting professionals, organisations and society to foster a mindset of curiosity.