22 Oct. 2015 | Comments (0)
As children, anything sparks our curiosity. The box intrigues as much as the gift, and the scenery outside a car window can enchant for hours. We seek to know, and we engage in the essential activity for finding out. We question.
And yet, as we grow older, curiosity tends to be wrung out of us. Parents, schools, and workplaces impose rules and discourage risk. Rather than provoking with inquiry, they insist on correct answers. A child asks 300 questions a day. By middle school, the number is down to practically none. By adulthood, our disposition toward questioning can range from the timid to the hostile.
A recent study I did with the German-based Merck KGaA, to commemorate its 125 years in the United States, underscores the problem. Surveying workers in 16 industries, we found that while 65% said that curiosity was essential to discover new ideas, virtually the same percentage felt unable to ask questions on the job. The contradictions continued: while 84% reported that their employers encouraged curiosity, 60% said they had also encountered barriers to it at work.
What’s happening here? It seems that organizations are claiming to value curiosity, but still discouraging its expression. They promote innovation, yet punish failure. They cling to legacy structures and systems that emphasize authority over inquiry and routine over resourcefulness.
Consider the automobile industry. According to our survey, its workers don’t feel their leaders and companies embrace or effectively capitalize on curiosity; it ranked 14th on our list. Common stumbling blocks cited (across industries) were a top-down approach to decision-making, limited time for creative thinking, a preference for safe ideas over new ones, and fear of standing out from the pack. How can these and other organizations do better?
As a first step, questioning — from why something has always been done a certain way to why a leader holds a certain view — should be positively rewarded. Do traditional car ads (vehicle on an open road, powerful sound track) really work? Should dealerships consider deviating from the standard (boring) layout?
Second, leaders must emphasize observation. Instead of asking customers to take satisfaction surveys, consider actually watching what they do when trying to buy a car. For example, parents often leave the dealership without making a purchase because their kids get bored and cranky. Why not install an indoor playground or wall of video game consoles to divert the little ones’ attention?
A third step is to seek different perspectives — to both capture minority voices and ensure everyone listens to them so that no good idea is lost because of shyness, intimidation, or institutional sexism and racism. Perhaps an automaker could launch an in-house competition to name and create a marketing slogan for a new model of car? On a more personal level, managers might consider asking anyone attending a brainstorming meeting to submit ideas ahead of time; only after the ideas had been discussed would the participants know who had suggested each.
When you stop paying lip service to the power of curiosity and empower your employees to express it every day, you not only boost innovation and productivity, you enhance well-being. The best research in this area indicates that the most curious people are also the most fulfilled. That’s because curiosity demands that we engage with the world around us right now in a meaningful and complex way. It doesn’t require gambling on what will trigger pleasure in the future or recalling what did in the past. It sustains interest in a moment we can actually grasp.
Curiosity is hard-wired into the brain, but we’ve been taught to suppress it. It’s time for that to change. The workplace — where we spend most of our waking hours and often seek fulfillment — would be an excellent place to start.
This blog first appeared on Harvard Business Review on 10/21/2015.
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