Sharon Harris, Global Chief Marketing Officer at marketing firm Jellyfish explains why promoting curiosity in the workplace can positively impact productivity, profits, and employee trust.
Why curiosity matters
Every year, untold time and money are spent on making employees more productive, executives more capable, and businesses more versatile. But how much is spent on cultivating curiosity? If that seems like a strange question, consider the research which indicates that curiosity in the workplace has a positive impact on creativity, trust, respect, and profitability.
Better employee engagement and experiences
Additional studies have shown further benefits of curiosity. Embedding it within company culture can enhance employees’ sense of meaning, lead to more positive interpersonal relationships, and set the stage for better learning.
All of this scientific confirmation is useful in backing up what the best business minds have known for many years. Bernard Baruch, one of the most influential financiers in American history, once noted: “Millions saw the apple fall, but Newton asked why.” Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt claimed that the company was run on “questions, not answers.”
As mounting evidence implies that curiosity is a valuable and underutilised resource for businesses, the natural question becomes how can we foster it? Here are some methods worth exploring:
Jeff Bezos famously discouraged early Amazon staffers from pursuing hobbies or taking time away from work. While we’re all too familiar with the success that the company has since enjoyed (there’s always an exception to the rule), there is reason to believe that Bezos’ approach was misguided. In fact, there’s a positive correlation between curiosity and employee engagement, which means that demanding too much focus on work could actually backfire.
Based on what research is telling us, the logical thing for companies to do is take the opposite of Bezos’ hard-line approach – don’t just allow employees to get involved with things, activities, and people that spark their curiosity, actively encourage it. If possible, go as far as providing resources to make it easier for employees to explore their interests.
If 2020 taught us anything, it’s that people and work are both surprisingly adaptable, which just broadens the scope of what’s possible in terms of helping employees be curious. Remote work and flexible schedules, for example, are more feasible than ever, and that opens the door further for embracing curiosity-driven opportunities.
Reframing is a fancy word for deliberately looking at something through a different lens. It’s the foundation of creative problem solving and an excellent way to stimulate the neurocircuitry responsible for curiosity. Most companies say they value innovation from within but often contradict themselves by setting the expectation that employees follow established procedures and protocols without providing space for experimentation.
Whether it’s in the context of routine tasks or one-off challenges, reframing can be introduced and developed as a skill at all levels of an organisation. Employees can be coached to find alternative ways of wording or thinking about problems within the business, prompting them to get curious. Can an HR issue be reframed as a management or strategy issue? Can a period of decreased productivity be reframed as a window into company culture?
These kinds of questions speak to the close relationship between curiosity and a growth mindset. Remember, the answers generated here are less important than the long-term benefits that can result from the organisation-wide promotion of curiosity.
3. Goal setting
Most businesses already set goals for their employees, often both explicit and implicit. Some forward-thinking companies even encourage (or require) employees to set their own goals. There’s a way to go about this, though, that not only reaps the traditional rewards of goal setting (like measurability and accountability) but also opens up channels for curiosity.
Instead of performance goals, organisations should consider emphasising learning goals. The former type creates pressure to meet predetermined standards, while the latter leverages curiosity for open-ended growth and development. It may seem counterintuitive, but research indicates that focusing on learning can lead to greater productivity than focusing on performance. It’s probably fair to say that KPIs won’t be disappearing anytime soon, but there’s no reason they can’t be used in tandem with goals that promote acquisition of skills and knowledge.
Rewards in the workplace come in many shapes and sizes, including raises, promotions, bonuses, and recognition; even getting the job, to begin with, could be considered a reward. More so than any other factor, it is the traits that a company chooses to reward which inform its culture; you are what you treat.
Leaders can use this in their favor if they foster curiosity in their organisations by rewarding it. This could take the form of choosing to promote the person who asks useful questions or incentivising curiosity through a bonus structure that rewards learning and skill development.
The exact methods may differ widely from one organisation to another. The important thing is that the message is clear – we want you to be curious, we encourage you to be curious, and we will reward you for being curious.
One of the easiest and most practical ways to foster curiosity inside an organisation is to introduce its members or employees to roles and responsibilities outside of their own. Arguably, it’s also one of the most valuable ways, since breaking down silos and establishing a level of cross-functional transparency is inherently valuable for a business.
As with rewarding, collaboration can take a number of forms – it could be a high-stakes multi-disciplinary innovation team, or it could simply be employees from different departments shadowing one another from time to time. In both cases, and everywhere in between, resources are being created at the same time that curiosity is being stimulated.
There’s not just one benefit to curiosity, and there’s not just one way to embed it in the culture of a company. Extracting its true value, though, starts with leaders accepting that those benefits are real and measurable, not just another trendy topic making its way around corporate boardrooms. For what it’s worth, Albert Einstein would almost certainly approve of any effort to create a more curious organisational culture. “The important thing is not to stop questioning,” he said. “Curiosity has its own reason for existing.”
Sharon Harris is Chief Marketing Officer of Jellyfish, working closely with global brands and their millions of customers all over the world to create their perfect digital partnerships. Over the last 10 years, she has operated as an executive in Microsoft, AOL, T-Mobile, and Deloitte, helping brands develop relationships and embrace digital transformation. As someone comfortable with managing change and rolling up her sleeves to dive into the details, her accomplishments and experience include Integrated Sales and Marketing Strategy, Global Product Launches, Mobile Technology and Commerce Platforms, Global Go-To-Market Initiatives, Brand Development and Value Proposition Development, Media and Advertising Sales, and Revenue Growth. She is also a skilled public speaker.