Being uncertain about the answer to the riddle below may be a pleasant reward-anticipating feeling when you know this will be revealed, but will turn into frustration if the answer is missing.
Curiosity, the emotion that moved the cat. I wrote a little bit about how my own insatiable curiosity kept me alive.
New parents learn a lot about the power of curiosity. Humans are probably at their most curious when they’re young, because they are eager to learn and lack the inhibitions and social pressures that accrue over time. However there will invariably have been a day, although you’re unlikely to remember it, when you entered your classroom and the crayons had suddenly disappeared. From that moment, learning no longer focused on bright colours, creativity and imagination, but straight lines and accurate calculations. Your curiosity, a powerful facet of human motivation, began blurring into the background.
The pursuit of knowledge, invoked through curiosity, has always frightened humanity. Many myths warn us that curiosity killed the cat. God banishes Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden because they eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. The Faust legend describes a man who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for unlimited knowledge.
But our world is crying out for more curiosity so that like Newton, we not only observe events unfolding around us, our curiosity is piqued to ask why.
Curiosity is characterised by a dogged desire for truth—even ugly truths, for uncovering truth is an emergent property of curiosity. Falsehoods cannot satisfy the yearning to understand. The joy of curiosity eases the discomfort we feel when the truth hurts, as the thrill of exploration overwhelms the pain. We become eager to experience that thrill again and again, fuelled by the yearning to understand. Curiosity does not seek truth because it is the moral choice, but because it is the pleasurable choice. As curious minds interact, people challenge each other’s oversights and biases until the truth emerges from their debates. Whilst reason incentivises us to feel ‘right’, curiosity does not have that desire. Sure, it’s more psychologically taxing to wonder What if I’m wrong? than to reassure oneself with all the reasons why one is right but curiosity is it’s own reward.
We should bind society together with the yearning to understand. Curiosity’s characteristic behaviour of breaking ideas to solve problems is how democracies course correct while navigating disparate interests in a diverse society. The truth provides a common ground among disparate interests. By desiring honest explanations of how the world works, curiosity expands this common ground. This is how curiosity can bind society and organisations together.
Curiosity in Organisations
Recent research by Spencer Harrison and Jon Cohen shed light on an astounding conundrum that most organisations face. Leaders assume—mistakenly for the most part—that their employees feel empowered to be curious. They see few barriers themselves to asking questions and assume the same is true for their employees. But employees describe a very different reality.
Curiosity requires space and time, and it can be pushed to the bottom of a leaders priority list when life gets too busy. But curiosity helps employees engage more deeply in their work, generate new ideas and share those ideas with others. Leaders need to find ways to help employees flex their curiosity. We want people to ask big questions—and we want to celebrate them when they do. We want them to think up experiments that haven’t been done before. If people aren’t ever failing, they’re not asking hard enough questions or taking big enough risks. Curiosity can be like a muscle: its strength will erode if it isn’t used often enough. When curiosity ebbs, people lapse into routine and complacency, which exposes a company to disruption. To prevent that, managers should continually emphasise how important curiosity is—and reward people for developing it.
Adding to the social science research, neurological studies from Matthias Gruber of the University of California, suggest that when our curiosity is piqued, changes in the brain ready us to learn not only about the subject at hand, but incidental information, too. Just as emotional arousal can bolster certain memories, brain activity during the waiting period before an answer appears can predict later memory performance. Observing brain activity via MRI scans, it appears that before an answer is revealed to a participant, the brain’s eager interest has already engaged the reward system. Piquing curiosity could also help educators, advertisers and storytellers find ways to help students or audiences better retain messages.
When we train individuals and teams for Courageous Conversations, (new information) we authorise curiosity because we recognise that curiosity is associated with less defensive reactions to stress and less aggressive reactions to perceived provocation. It’s natural to concentrate on the certainty of ‘knowing’ underscored by results, especially when we drift into the Red zone. But focusing on learning is more beneficial to all of us, our organisations and our societies. One of the greatest attributes of being able to ask a powerful question is that it generates curiosity in the listener which in turn leads to a more generative dialogue.
For instance, in the face of a serious accusation of organisational wrongdoing (e.g. corruption or illicit business practice), the first principle – duality of mind – compels curiosity. Rather than immediately dismissing the accusation as inconsistent with what we know of the organisation, we need to seek out all available information. Instead of resorting to reflexive denial, wise leaders may ask the company’s accuser, “if you know something that I don’t, tell me everything. I may not be fully aware.”
The Courageous Conversations Growth-Shops seek to empower individuals to ask good questions, listen deeply, remain open-minded, value new experiences, challenge the status quo and stay keenly aware that no one has all the answers. These are the behaviors that define curiosity.
Nobel laureates’ biographies often include moments when a teacher, a parent, or a respected leader authorised their curiosity. For example, Mae Jemison, the first African American female astronaut, noted that she was constantly curious as a child. She observed that her curiosity didn’t “lose [its] energy” in part because it was reinforced by a summer internship at Bell Laboratories: “You get this reinforcement, and that’s the kind of role that companies and corporations can play,” she said. Once curiosity becomes a part of an individual’s identity then they feel authorised to ask questions that might upset the status quo.
Successful organisations are rooted in curiosity. To generate new ideas and add value to their organisations, employees at all levels need an environment where they can be curious, seek and absorb new information, and make new connections. A disconnect between leaders’ and employees’ assumptions about the value of curiosity within an organisation prevents new information from flowing into the organisation. Unless leaders can see the barriers to curiosity throughout their organisations and create systems for it to flourish, they will remain in a prison of their own construction: believing themselves free to be curious and therefore believing everyone else is equally curious and unimpeded.
So pick up your coloured crayons again!
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