Why You Should Foster Curiosity As A Skill At Work

Curiosity and exploration used to be reserved for senior management. Today, with unchartered external pressures and risk of disruption, innovation must flourish across all levels for a company to stay ahead. What does it take for employees to stay curious?
Desiree McGinn
Jul 01, 2021

Curiosity has for a long time been viewed unfavourably by organisations, leaders and wider society. In the 1800s, it was even viewed as a weakness that, in the moral values of the time, mainly women would possess. Even during the social revolution of the 20th century, curiosity wasn’t a useful mindset for most workers. Their value was limited to the implementation of tasks. Companies were heavily focused on profiting from their workforce, seen by many as exploitation.

Stefaan van Hooydonk, founder of the Global Curiosity Institute, says the world is now moving from exploitation to exploration. Exploration has often been reserved for senior leadership – a habit that persists since the time of the industrial revolution. With the development of the knowledge economy, however, exploration at all levels is becoming important.

Today, businesses face an uncharted landscape with a multitude of challenges. Companies and industries become disrupted quickly, and staying complacent has never been so risky. Therefore innovation is the key not just to flourish but to stay afloat. Curiosity acts as a prerequisite for innovation – a company that encourages exploration and curiosity puts itself in a better position to innovative.

Three dimensions of curiosity

How exactly is curiosity defined? Van Hooydonk points out that almost everyone has intuitive definitions of what it means: the joyous exploration that children have, the wonder we have for the world, the many discoveries that created fire, electricity and so much more.

American philosopher and psychologist William James came up with the following description at the end of the 19th century: ‘the impulse towards better cognition’.  From there, the definition has fluctuated with changes in our knowledge of underlying psychological processes. Van Hooydonk defines curiosity as three different dimensions.

First, there is the cognitive dimension: the more we know about something, the more interested we are likely to be.

The second is social curiosity, or empathic curiosity. In other words, this is our interest in other people. Empathic curiosity can be a key to defuse conflicts, for example.

The third is the self-reflective dimension. This is the ability to look inwards and explore our conscious and unconscious thoughts, our values, biases and beliefs.

An accurate umbrella-definition for curiosity is the ‘drive state for information’.

Curiosity in the workplace

Research has shown that curiosity brings many benefits to the workplace.

As Van Hooydonk explains, for organisations this extends to faster product development, coming up with better solutions to challenges, increased agility, and readiness to move in different directions. Curiosity also tends to attract inquisitive minds and can make a company stand out when competing for talent.

For teams, greater curiosity can increase efficiency and productivity, reduce group conflict and decision-making errors, and create an environment that is better able to accept new members into the team and embrace diversity among them.

Curiosity brings benefits at an individual level as well: a reduction in cognitive bias, reduced anxiety, and higher levels of engagement at work. It has even been shown to foster career progression and financial gain.

Given these benefits, it is easy to assume that most organisations must actively nurture curiosity, but this isn’t quite the case. It appears that most want to put an emphasis on curiosity but do little to make it happen.

‘If you ask senior executives whether they are favouring curiosity in the workplace, almost everyone would say “of course”, says van Hooydonk. However, when you look at what gets rewarded, it is often not exploration, but rather exploitation.’

‘Look at this scenario: you have two people that are ready for a promotion, and one person has stuck their neck out but fails in some ways, yet created a lot of good learning for the team and your organisation. Are you going to put forward the person who failed, or the other person who has been doing exactly what they have been asked to do? Do you have processes in place to support curiosity? Are you celebrating exploration? It may sound very nice in a PowerPoint, but few organisations are doing it.’

Executive development leader Henrik Waitz adds: ‘The power of curiosity is lost in the construct and design of organisations today.’

Are you curious? An easy guide to check to see if you are a curious professional.

Curious professional Incurious professional
  • Constant learner
  • Accidental learner
  • Goes deep and broad in the pursuit of new knowledge
  • If pushed, only deepens familiar territories
  • Adopts a growth mindset
  • Has a fixed mindset
  • Is proactive and open to novelty
  • Is reactive and closed with changes
  • Takes time and responsibility to keep with biz and colleagues
  • Relies on past knowledge
  • Co-creates the environment
  • Goes with the flow


What stifles curiosity?

On an individual level, anxiety, judgement, arrogance and apathy can be curiosity-killers. Limited knowledge can also stifle it: curiosity needs knowledge to build on – the more we learn, the more mental connections we make. External distractions can also create a toxic environment: for example, micro managers, stress and technology, according to van Hooydonk.

At a company level, a sole focus on exploitation stifles curiosity, as can processes and practices that favour efficiency or the status quo, such as in the example of the two different personalities slated for promotion described above. Lack of phycological safety, having innovation reserved for only a few, and not having an empowering learning culture are all culprits. The CEO and executive team need to be open to exploration for curiosity to flourish.Curious individuals need a curious nurturing environment,’ says van Hooydonk.

Waitz points to another issue that arises when organisations do not leverage curiosity: ‘We found that when people are three to five years in the job – where normally companies should be harvesting the additional value of company know-how and general seniority of the employee: those are the least explorative employees. They get stuck in the processes, are focused on delivering next day results, and just do not have time to innovate’. 

Five traits of curious leaders

Curiosity often trickles down in the organisation if the leader is curious. Van Hooydonk shares five traits that curious leader tends to display:

  1. Is a role model
    First, the leader must be a role model for curiosity, and in all three dimensions: cognitive, self-reflective, and empathic.
  2. Sets and clarifies a vision
    A curious leader can maintain a compelling company vision and identify major challenges.
  3. Has humility
    … but is confident about it. Humble leaders see themselves as a member of the organisation or the team, as opposed to being above them. This attitude can have a positive impact on company culture, and stimulate ideas and flows in the team and across the company.
  4. Creates a safe environment
    A curious leader tends to create a space for psychological safety. This includes viewing failures as opportunities for learning and to encourage curiosity at all levels. It also means enabling employees and teams to go beyond what they thought they were capable of and to excel – so often the result of psychological safety.
  5. Balances exploration and exploitation.
    In the 20th century, organisations were good at exploitation: someone had an idea, started a company, and employed people to replicate that idea as many times as possible. Incremental innovation happened at times, but by and large it was about squeezing as much as possible from the main idea.

Exploration, on the other hand, is needed in times of change. In the future, businesses won’t be able to replicate an idea endlessly without disruption – and so exploration will be crucial to organisational success. That doesn’t mean that exploitation won’t be necessary – it’s still an important component of business. A successful leader will, however, be good at balancing exploration and exploitation for optimal results.

How to build on your ‘curiosity muscle’

The case for curiosity is clear. It is also apparent that curiosity needs to be fostered to an extent by organisations and teams. Here are some tips from Stefaan van Hooydonk on what individuals can do to build on their curiosity:

  • Build your knowledge bank: learn new things, explore your specialisations as well as search out new knowledge. If you are working in finance, discover the ins and outs of the products; go and join your sales team on customer visits.
  • Plan for curiosity and be intentional about it: allow for some special times in your day where you allow curiosity to be top of your mind. Reserve time for learning or reading every day.
  • Surprise yourself: arrange lunch or a zoom call with people from other departments. Have a chat with people who have different viewpoints to yours. As Abraham Lincoln said: “I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better.” Otherwise, change your normal route to work. When you are in a bookshop, buy the book next to the one you were planning to and let it surprise you.
  • Practise active humility: open yourself up. Help to remind yourself that you don’t know everything about yourself, and that there is much more to explore within you. Explore your values, reflect on the way you say the things, the thoughts you have, and why you act/react in certain ways. Ask others to help you in this.
  • Get a coach and/or a mentor: surround yourself with people who can uplift you, who help you to think harder instead of telling you want you want to hear.

And as for the future? ‘We think the future is going to be quite different in that employees will be working in smaller, agile, teams with more autonomy. In that environment, curiosity will likely flourish naturally. If you allow people to be more autonomous and to be “entrepreneurs” in their organisation, curiosity will come’, Waitz concludes.

Desiree McGinn

Content Strategy Lead at Headspring