Recent studies and just plain common sense tells us that no one want to be just a “cog in the machine” at work. We all value agency and engagement, which are vital to workplace happiness. Curiosity, and the ability to learn new information, skills and material are important parts of staying engaged at work. Companies who actively encourage curiosity and new thinking will reap the benefits of increased productivity and retention.
A recent study in Harvard Business Review (Francesca Gino, The Case for Business Curiosity, Sept 2018) found that only about 24% of workers reported feeling curious in their jobs on a regular basis, and about 70% said they face barriers to asking more questions at work. And yet, benefits to employee curiosity include fewer decision-making errors, more innovation and better team cohesion and communication.
So what can companies or managers do to encourage increased curiosity and learning on the job?
- Encourage collaboration and brainstorming, or as Chris Bailey has coined in his book, Hyperfocus, time for “scatterfocus.” Scatterfocus is a time of heightened creativity and insight where you allow your mind and focus to wander, to ask questions and to explore new possibilities.
- Reward new thinking through hackathons, pitch competitions or time for “pet projects.” Adobe has supported more than 1,000 experiments through its Kickbox program, which provides employees with everything they need to come up with a brilliant idea and get it off the ground, including innovation guidelines and $1,000 to put toward the project.
- Allow risk-taking and occasionally value process over results. Extended Stay America’s CEO, Jim Donald, gave employees “Get Out of Jail Free” cards that they could use when they wanted to take a big risk for the company. Handing out the cards showed employees that upper management valued risks and would support them if they took a chance.
- Model inquisitiveness. Managers should ask questions themselves, not merely to get answers but to understand processes and thinking. Encourage all levels of management to spend time learning new skills on or off the job. Gino describes the beginning of Greg Dyke’s tenure as director general of the BBC in 2000. He spent five months visiting the BBC’s major locations, assembling the staff at each stop. Employees expected a long presentation but instead got a simple question: “What is the one thing I should do to make things better for you?” Dyke would listen carefully and then ask, “What is the one thing I should do to make things better for our viewers and listeners?”
The days of treating employees as easily replaceable assets should be in the past, as well as the idea that asking “what if..” is seen as challenging authority. Today’s businesses must encourage creativity, collaboration and engagement if they are retain their best employees and move forward in our rapid competitive environment. Walt Disney, one of the 20th century’s greatest innovators and creative thinkers opined, “We keep moving forward, opening new doors and doing new things, because we are curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.”