Curiosity: The Inspiration for Innovation, Resilience, and Sustainability

In an age of distraction, with market volatility, and constant uncertainty, organizations face challenges to their ability to maintain a resilient workforce. Issues that impact sustainability in innovation include the environment, society, and economics. In constantly changing times, taking the ground most traveled and embracing the status quo is no longer a viable option. Truly resilient organizations must embrace robust transformation. Lengnick-Hall described organizational resilience as, “the capacity to act robustly in the face of environmental turbulence and to adapt to the ongoing environmental changes.” Organizations must look to ideas never considered when developing innovation that is resilient and sustainable.   That is where curiosity can play an important role.

Importance of Resilience

There is a wealth of research that supports the value of resiliency.  A study from North Highland in partnership with HBR found in more than 500 companies with $1 billion-plus in annual revenue, only 12% of survey respondents consider their organization’s efforts at promoting a culture of resilience to be successful. North Highland’s research focused on several organizations that have learned how to improve resiliency. Hilton is an example of a company that realizes the importance of how developing employee capacity can impact communication and the ability to offer excellent customer service. GSK focuses on significant changes by minimizing employee anxiety. Edward Jones focuses on understanding their employees’ skills and strengths. Comcast prepares people for change by being proactive to it. All these techniques have proved to be effective ways to improve resiliency.

Each of these cases demonstrates how organizations differ from how they improve resilience.  Employees must be included and feel like they are part of what helps organizations achieve their end goals.  There must be a sense of inclusion. According to Harvard Professor, Francesca Gino, “When management is listening, employees feel better able to voice their own opinions. Moreover, when employees’ views are welcome, research shows, stress levels become more manageable, and employees can be more authentic at work.”

For employees to feel confident to voice their opinions, they must overcome some of the factors that have impeded their natural sense of curiosity.  As we age, our level of curiosity diminishes.  In the book, The Yes Brain, authors Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson, researched how to cultivate curiosity and resilience.  The authors explained, “When kids work from a Yes Brain, they’re more willing to take chances and explore. They’re more curious and imaginative. They’re better at relationships and handling adversity.” This natural ability to handle adversity and become more resilient can be achieved within the workplace if leaders can recognize the importance of developing curiosity.  Research published in the National Institutes of Health has shown resilience is negatively correlated with childhood interpersonal trauma.  Individuals will avoid things that they have found to cause them stress in the past.

Tie into Curiosity

Beyond obvious stressors like childhood trauma, it can be essential to consider other factors that cause individuals to react in ways that hold them back from developing creative, innovative approaches to problems and feel confident to suggest solutions that help organizations succeed.  In the research behind the Curiosity Code Index, it was discovered that four factors impact curiosity, including fear, assumptions, technology, and environment.  The organization that can stimulate its workers’ curiosity can enhance employee engagement, emotional intelligence, innovation, productivity, and the many other by-products that come with that intrinsic, but under-utilized attribute. By developing curiosity and the ability to communicate without fear of repercussions, second-guessing or judgmental responses, employees can be better aligned and emotionally committed to their jobs, which in turn, can lead to improved productivity.

Fear can be one of the most significant factors that hold people back from being curious. Fear causes employees to be resistant to change.  In a Forbes Coaches Council article by executive coach Gerry Valentine, he stated the best way to embrace change is through curiosity rather than to meet it with resistance.  He explained, “Rather than giving in to fear, become deeply curious about the change.” Workers might resist technology for fear of what it takes to learn it, because they have never been exposed to it, or be inhibited based on a host of other factors based on environmental influences. Pew research found 72% of employees have concerns about losing their jobs to technology. Rather than putting their heads in the sand and hoping technology will go away, it is critical to ask questions and learn from it.  By embracing curiosity, employees can understand better how to coexist with and benefit from technology.

Leaders can help their employees overcome fear by developing emotional resilience.  Geetu Bharwaney, Director at EI World, explained this would allow employees to be able to speak up when it matters and be able to have difficult conversations when needed.  This can be critical as organizations deal with employees resisting change and fearing ramification of sharing their feelings about it.  To embrace change requires curiosity.  Employees must have the confidence to have an open mind, which includes the desire to share opinions and to pose questions.

A valuable outcome from developing curiosity is that it can lead to exploration. In a study by Colin Camerer and his colleagues at the California Institute of Technology, “participants read trivia questions and rated how curious they were about the answers. The stronger their desire to find out, the greater the in the reward network before they received an answer.” Research like this can help organizations better understand the value of exploration. Developing curiosity in workers provides an incentive reward that can lead to breakthrough innovations.

Curiosity has been studied for its motivational qualities.  Research in the area of artificial intelligence has shown that curiosity, which leads to motivation, can be based on anticipation of a future reward and desire to feel the novelty of going to a previously undiscovered space.  Schmidhuber, a pioneer in reinforcement learning, explained that robots could be designed to be curious based on having a desire to learn the unpredictable. Recent artificial intelligence research has shown that curiosity can be cultivated without the traditional extrinsic reward expectation through studying robots’ game-playing habits. If resiliency is defined as recovering from poor choices and moving forward, these researchers determined that artificial intelligence is capable of being resilient based on their sense of curiosity.

To become genuinely innovative requires changing the way things have always been done in the past. As the revolution of working smarter, not harder continues, organizations must find a way to improve adaptability and become market leaders. The old style of managing cannot keep up with the pace of innovation. As analyst Alan Murray wrote in the Wall Street Journal, organizations “have missed game-changing transformations in industry after industry—computers (mainframes to PCs), telephony (landline to mobile), photography (film to digital), stock markets (floor to online)—not because of ‘bad’ management, but because they followed the dictates of ‘good’ management.”

In a Forbes article by Joseph Folkman, he describes a resilient leader as “a person who sees failures as temporary setbacks they can recover from quickly. They maintain a positive attitude and a strong sense of opportunity during periods of turbulence. When faced with ambiguity, a resilient leader finds ways to move forward and avoids getting stuck.” He explains that they identified seven behaviors to becoming more resilient. Several of them tie into curiosity including the ability to communicate powerfully, to be coachable, and build positive/trusting relationships. Through being open to posing questions without fear, and to listening and responding in a meaningful way, organizations can develop resiliency in their employees and leaders.

Sustaining Resilience 

Sustainability of resilience requires that leaders educate themselves in the factors that impact it. The American Psychology Association advises that individuals make realistic and specific plans for improvement, capitalizing on strengths and abilities while focusing on skills involving communication and problem-solving. This will allow people the ability to manage their feelings toward stressful situations.  Preoccupation with failure is cited by Woods at Ohio State University, as one of the main factors that can impact resiliency in organizations.  This can lead to becoming stuck doing outdated behaviors. Paula Davis-Laack, the Founder and CEO of the Davis Laack Stress & Resilience Institute explained: “employees today must develop a thicker coat of armor so that future stressors don’t have as much of an impact.”  It could be critical to uncover any past issues that hold people back from proposing new ideas. Open communication must take place, where leaders are supportive and active listeners.  This requires employees to feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and questions.

If employees do not recognize that they hold back from asking questions or posing solutions, that can lead to disengagement and ultimately problems with resilience. It can be essential to get a baseline measurement on what holds people back from exploring their natural sense of curiosity.  It can go beyond fear, to areas such as making incorrect assumptions, problems with acceptance with technology, or even present or past environmental factors.  Making false assumptions can impact an individual’s grit or passion and influence an individual’s motivation to achieve goals. Therefore, it is critical to assess assumptions that could affect motivation and influence perception of tasks.  Leaders should not play down the impact of an individual’s inner monologue or self-talk. Padesky and Mooney found that as part of cognitive behavior therapy, building resilience is a matter of mindfully changing basic behaviors and thought patterns. To begin this process, individuals must recognize that they have made certain assumptions that have impacted their actions.

As organizations strive to remain resilient, they must begin by focusing on developing employee curiosity.  In a time when remaining innovative is the key to survival, leaders must explore the areas that have kept employees from exploring ideas, asking pertinent questions, and providing potential solutions.  Doing things, the way they have always been done, will not be enough in the modern workplace.  As Marshall Goldsmith said, “what got you here, won’t get you there.” The sooner leaders recognize the importance of delving into the issues that impede curiosity, the sooner they can set course for a truly innovative and resilient organization.

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About the Author:

Dr. Diane Hamilton is a nationally syndicated radio show host. She writes and speaks on curiosity, business, leadership, emotional intelligence, personality assessment, career, and education. She is the creator of the Curiosity Code Index (CCI). She is the author of multiple books including It’s Not Your It’s Your Personality, and her forthcoming book is titled, Cracking the Curiosity Code: The Key to Unlocking Human Potential. and

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