To learn more about curiosity, I delved into the research. You might be aware of some of the popular books that helped me with the foundation. For example, Daniel Pink wrote Drive. Who here has read that book? It was great, right? He also has a pretty popular TED Talk. In it, he examined the puzzle of motivation. Traditional rewards like money and incentives aren’t always as effective as we think. Organizations need to shift from basing decisions on people based on outdated and unexamined information and instead, focus on intrinsic motivation.
But where does that come from? That is what I wanted to know. What is the spark to that intrinsic motivation? Everything kept coming back to curiosity.
I also examined Simon Sinek’s work regarding Finding your “Why”. Sinek emphasizes that people want to work for people who inspire them. “People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.” If organizations expect to hire people who are emotionally committed to the job, they need to understand the part of the brain that controls behavior.
The Max Plank Institute coined the term “curiosity gene” , which is present in people and animals. When the curiosity gene is activated, dopamine is released into our bodies, Dopamine is sometimes called the “reward molecule” because it makes us feel good. Curiosity triggers a satisfying, feel-good sensation that’s not dramatically different from eating chocolate, riding a rollercoaster or a taking a Zumba class. Curiosity clearly rewards us.
One of the most important books regarding curiosity might just be Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset. Her research found that people have either a fixed or a growth mindset. If their mindset is fixed, challenges are avoided and effort is seen as fruitless. If they have a growth mindset, they believe they can be developed and therefore it is worthwhile to pursue striving for improvement. Their brains literally light up with the potential of learning from the error. How many of you work with people or for an organization who have shut themselves down to the potential of learning from errors?
There are many instruments out there that can measure levels of curiosity, but they don’t tell you what’s impeding it or how to improve it.
If curiosity is the spark, where did it go? How do we find it? Well, I researched that very thing and I’ll tell you how!
People often ask me: why create another assessment? My answer? Because if you don’t know what holds you back, how can you move forward? If we can get a baseline measurement on the things that stop us, we can create an action plan to overcome those issues. But quantifying those things was much more challenging than I had anticipated. Now I know why no one had created an assessment. After years of exploration, several psychometric statisticians, and research on thousands of people, I was able to isolate just the right questions to determine the factors that keep us from being curious.
I discovered there were four things that hold people back from having a higher level of curiosity and those were Fear, Assumptions, Technology, and Environment.
I want to share the results I found in my years of research because a lot of it ties into the things we have learned including how to have tough conversations, create trust, and a lot of that ties into getting over having fear. The first area of my research uncovered a big impactor of curiosity, which is fear. When I first started studying curiosity, I put a question thread into LinkedIn and asked everyone what they believed held them back from being curious. Overwhelmingly, the response was fear. No one wants to look dumb. We all have been in meetings where we have that question. We dread asking it because what if everyone else knows the answer and I am the only one who doesn’t? Have you ever whispered to the guy next to you to ask a question because you don’t want to ask it? It’s better for them to look dumb. Fear paralyzes us into inaction.
We might have had experiences where we were made to feel uncomfortable. I certainly have. I can remember a leader who asked me to do something that I had never done in the past. I told him I would be happy to do that, but I had never done it before and wanted to know how to do it. He looked at me with a disgusted look and said, “I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear that.” What does that do to employees? It tells them that they just said something that was stupid. It tells them that they better pretend to know things when they don’t. It also encourages them not to be honest. Some people – many people, frankly, shut down their desire to explore and never ask questions like that again. In this guy’s defense, his leaders treated him that way. He was taught this is how you lead. He wasn’t a bad guy; he was just emulating what he thought he should say as a leader. How many of you have had leaders like that? They sometimes seem very nice and normal outside of work and then you put that leader hat on them and they get a little power crazy. That can shut people down real fast!
However, there will always be exceptions to the rule. There are a few out there who are able to get past their fears in life without assistance. Hellicy N’gambi is one of the most inspirational people I have met in my lifetime. When on my show, she told me her story where she came from a tiny village with no electricity or running water. To go to school, she had to cross a big river while carrying all her supplies for the week including food, clothes, and a mat on her head. If it rained, that river became quite forceful and caused some of her friends who tried to cross it to die. She could have given up her hope of having an education by giving into her fear. But she embraced curiosity and a burning desire to learn. She was determined to become educated and risked her life every time she crossed that river. Some years later, she was named the first-ever female Vice-Chancellor at a public university in Zambia.
Steve Jobs has said that most people don’t get experiences because they don’t ask. He said he never found anyone who wouldn’t help him if he asked them. That is what separates the people who succeed from those who don’t. You must be willing to explore questions and follow opportunities that could cause you to fail. If you are afraid of failing, you won’t get very far.
As HR, you are in the middle of helping people get over their fears so that they can communicate better. Leaders and employees all have that fear being discovered as not knowing as much as they should know. HR can help bridge that communication gap by helping facilitate conversations that people are afraid to have. They can be a mediating party that can help both sides feel more comfortable initially to begin to ask questions.
To help people overcome their fear, it is critical to open a dialogue about the value of contributions and questions to the overall success of the organization as well as the development of the individual. When leaders say things like, “Don’t bring me a problem if you don’t have a solution,” it shuts down the potential for people to point out issues even if they don’t have the skills to solve them.
Leaders can model the behavior they would like their employees to display. Being humble and expressing that no question is a dumb question is essential. To model that, leaders must be willing to show they, too, don’t know everything. When employees recognize that leaders allow themselves to be more vulnerable and human, it will enable them to be the same.
The second factor that impacts curiosity is our assumptions or the voice in our heads. This is from the cartoon where Dr. Katz is a psychologist and the patients who guest star are comedians. In one episode, one of the patients says, “I don’t mind the voice in my head so much. I just wish it didn’t have a stutter.”
Those voices can really hold us back. That is why it is critical to recognize them. Let me demonstrate the impact. As I open a bottle of water and drink from it and pour a glass of water to a crowd, I ask them how heavy they think the water is. Usually they might expect a half-full/half-empty scenario and might yell out some answers like 12 ounces or 16 ounces. However, the actual weight does not matter. What matters is how long I hold it. A minute might not be much of a problem, but after an hour I will feel a dull ache. If I held it all day, my arm might feel paralyzed. So the weight never changed, just how long I held it impacted how heavy it felt.
Stresses and worries of life are like that water. If we think about them for a little while, not much happens. If we continue to think about them for longer, we begin to feel pain. If we think about them all day, then we can become paralyzed and helpless. That is how our assumptions paralyze us. As we tell ourselves we can’t do something or something will be too hard, the more we listen to that voice, the more paralyzed we become. We have limited time and we waste it worrying about the noise in our heads. We let other people’s opinions shape that voice. We need to recognize how these voices in our head impact us because like the water, the longer we hold onto them, the more paralyzed we become.
We need to put the glass down.
I have met a lot of amazing people who were able to tell themselves they could do anything. I always admire those stories. I can remember having Erik Weihenmayer on the show. Erik was not born blind, but a disease eventually robbed him of his site. He could have given up and just wallowed in self-pity. Instead he decided to explore. You might have seen him on Oprah or read one of his many bestselling books. He is the first blind person to hike all the top summits in the world. He could have easily told himself that it would be too hard for a blind man to do that. He didn’t let the voice in his head hold him back.
We can learn a lot from people who question that voice in their heads. What if everything was not right or wrong, just different options? If we don’t put the stigma on our choices as being positive or negative, just as different opportunities, it changes our perception. We need to look at things in a new light.
The third factor that impacts curiosity is technology.
My mom has her own unique perception of technology because it is so out of her timeframe and foreign to her generation. My mom will not do anything on her computer because she is afraid, she is going to break it. Anyone who has given their parents technology know they just became tech support. I made the mistake of giving her a lot of different types of devices. If you ever want to learn patience, spend a day with your parents watching them enter their email address with an Apple TV remote.
People like my mom can either be afraid of messing up their computer or often they are lazy and don’t want to look for it. Age doesn’t have to be an obstacle to technology. All that’s required is curiosity.
Many of you might know Steve Wozniak co-founded Apple with Steve Jobs. Woz, as he is called, had the good fortune of having a father who worked at an electronics company. Because of his father’s job, the Wozniak home was packed with resistors, cables and all kinds of gadgets, making it the perfect space to tinker around. His father didn’t just let Woz figure it all out himself. He explained the basics of physics to him in a way that a child could understand, including kid-friendly diagrams and stories of inventors like Thomas Edison.
Not everyone has the good fortune of being exposed to technology in that way. Some of us find technology overwhelming, or we rely on it too much and never understand the foundations behind things. Because we don’t explore the why, how, and what if kind of scenarios, we often miss opportunities for how to best utilize technology to help us explore the things we might find passion exploring.
Some of us might think Google has dumbed us down because Google will just answer all those questions. Arguably today, Alexa can do the same thing just by asking many of those questions. We’re no longer curious about trivia questions; we just answer them. Organizations can help employees recognize their level of technological knowledge and work with them to improve foundational levels as well as explore potential uses for problem-solving.
The fourth and final factor that impacts curiosity is our environment. Sometimes we have amazing stories of environments. Wozniak’s story is one. He has said if he had to guess he thought 80% of who we are shaped comes from our childhood home. Since we know 98% of statistics are made up, that is probably not accurate. Regardless of the percentage, the reality is not all environments are positive. And not all bad environments cause us to give up. Some people push against their environment to their advantage as in a “I’ll show you way”. But you cannot count on that. Many people will be held back by their family, friends, leaders, etc.
Unfortunately, there are far more examples of people who did not overcome their environment than those who did. We saw the charts of how much our environment changes based on our age. We all start off with a high level of curiosity and then our environment can beat it out of us. When we are children, we might have teachers who don’t have time to answer our questions. We might have siblings or friends who criticize our interests. Even social media can have an impact. We all want to have “likes”. What do you do if you post something that doesn’t receive a lot of likes? You take it down or feel bad.
Our leaders and our workplace have a big impact. We need to look at how things are rejected or rewarded at work. Are we rewarding short-term decision making, going by the book, fitting in? If so, that explains what happened to curiosity and creativity. If everyone is always in agreement, that is not a good sign. People want to be liked, but that can hold them back from exploration. Consider the example of when the bell rang. No one wanted to be the one who did not stand up.
I was able to meet with Zander Lurie, the CEO of SurveyMonkey to discuss the importance of curiosity. Curiosity is at the top of their list of important things they want to develop in their employees. I asked him how they go about developing curiosity there. He asks questions like: How can we help make our products more productive for our customers? How can we make an environment here at SurveyMonkey so that people can do the best work of their lives? The company is trying to embrace a collaborative culture where they have direct conversations and constant dialogue. They give honest feedback. They have implemented mentorship programs and have a lot of skip-level meetings with folks who report to their directs to understand what is and what isn’t working on their team.
As a company that trades in feedback, SurveyMonkey lives up to their own ideals. They celebrate asking people for feedback, asking people for growth opportunities, development opportunities, and celebrating good questions, which challenge the status quo.
When I started to write my book about the importance of curiosity, it became very clear very quickly that I did not just want to explain the importance of curiosity. I wanted to fix it if people were held back from being curious. That required that I create an assessment to determine the things that inhibit people. Once you have a baseline measurement, you can move forward and improve.
I spent years researching and testing the questions I included on the Curiosity Code Index that I created. I wanted to be sure the instrument was something that could be similar in value to what we have seen with emotional intelligence tests. That took a lot of exploration. I tested it on thousands of people and found that the four factors that hold people back are pretty evenly problematic across the board. I kind of expected Fear to be the highest, but we know that a lot of these issues can overlap. For example, you can have a fear of technology.
In my research for the CCI, I learned that men and women are pretty similar regarding how much they are impacted by fear, assumptions, technology, and environment. Women were slightly more impacted by fear than men. Men were more impacted by their Assumptions and Environment than women. Both were pretty equal in terms of how much technology impacted them.
I am currently in the process of setting up a study with a doctoral student at Novartis. She will use my assessment to determine levels of curiosity in employees based on the impact of giving them the CCI. The research will determine how idea generation can be impacted by developing curiosity using the CCI.
What I have learned about training individuals in my certification courses is that there are two issues involved with curiosity. There is the need to fix the individual situations that hold people back from achieving their full potential and there is the need to work on the issues that are problematic for organizations. Individuals can create a sort of personal SWOT analysis that addresses each of their issues with fear assumptions, technology, and environment. Once they do that, it helps to create an overall corporate plan to help leaders determine how to work on some of the issues listed at the bottom here. By going to employees as a group and getting anonymous feedback, leaders can learn how to help their organizations become better at communication, engagement, and a host of other issues listed here.
When working with organizations, I answer many questions about how to improve curiosity. We often make the mistake of thinking we know how things “should” be. When I worked as a doctoral chair, my students would tell me what they thought the outcome of their dissertation would be. That made them direct their research and try to force that conclusion. That is what we see in the workplace as well. Many people are afraid of being proven wrong or failing. Facebook says, move fast and break things. They believe that if you are not failing, you are not trying hard enough.
Since we have limited time here, I will try to distill what you can do to improve curiosity into some useable takeaways. I recommend exploring the four areas of FATE, including what you fear, what assumptions you make, if you over or under-rely on technology, and what environmental factors have inhibited you.
It is up to leaders to set the stage for overcoming FATE by allowing themselves to be vulnerable. Leaders can demonstrate their own curiosity and model that for teams. Consider the leader for the Chilean disaster where those men were buried under all that rock. If you have not yet watched Amy Edmondson’s TED talk about how they used curiosity and collaboration to work well together, it is a must. They had a goal and pulled everyone together to reach that goal. That required asking questions and thinking outside of the box because no one had ever done what they were trying to accomplish, and they had limited time.
We must obtain ideas from all different places and assimilate those ideas into a plan. People often create plans and, only then, share it for input. That can be backward. We need to get feedback to establish plans. If people feel comfortable providing that input, our plan will be more effective.
I was just at a board meeting for a company in San Francisco. They hired us to be on the board to help them with input. When we got there, they already had created content for their site, had a mission and a vision, etc. The problem was, the mission and vision were not clear. The content was not necessarily useful. If they had come to us first, they could have saved a lot of time and effort. Now they must go back to the drawing board.
In any team, everyone has ideas about how to accomplish the goals in the best way. That does not mean they will share those ideas. They probably think their idea is better than yours. It might or might not be. It is essential to solicit opinions, even from the most reluctant members, so they know you value their input. Even if you don’t end up using some of that input, it validates their importance. You might also need other information from them for future projects, and have set the stage for them to be open to contributing. We need to knock down barriers. That is what I do in my training courses. What you can do on your end, for now, is recognize you don’t know what you don’t know.
We can work on developing curiosity in our current employees, and we can always look for curiosity in the people we hire. The next time you interview someone, ask them to close their eyes, and describe the things they saw when they came into the interview. How observant were they? Part of having a good sense of curiosity is the ability to recognize patterns.
For your current employees, you can instill a desire to explore through developing a desire to read. Amazon created the “You are what you read program,” where executives created a team that had an executive reading list. They picked a book and discussed it as a team. They talked about operational execution and actualization. They debated what to do relative to the ideas from the books. When creating proposals, they wrote narratives as opposed to creating PowerPoints. Writing forced them to communicate better. By debating effective alternatives, they focused on getting away from status-quo thinking.
So as you look at things you can do to help your organizations, consider the importance of hiring curious people. Ensure you model curiosity. HR can bridge the communication gap by asking key questions and making bridging statements that allow people to feel more comfortable. We must reward exploration and emphasize learning. Consider having what if? Why? Why not? And How might we? Days.