Curiosity: Why leaders should make this the new word in hiring

Curiosity helps organizations innovate: So why don’t more leaders model it – and hire for it? As we reimagine business in the wake of the pandemic, the time is right
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Mythologists say curiosity killed the cat. But Harvard Business School professor Francesca Gino says curiosity, nurtured in the workplace, can drive innovation and improve corporate performance. It might be the most important word missing from your organization’s job descriptions.

I became curious about curiosity while reading Kate Murphy’s “You Are Not Listening,” a book with the central premise that good listeners are also more curious individuals. Having listened for years to chief information officers tout the importance of the “4C” soft skills of communication, collaboration, critical thinking and creativity, my interest was piqued: Why wasn’t the skill of curiosity the 5th C on that list?

[ How do your people skills measure up? Read our related article, 8 powerful phrases of emotionally intelligent leaders. ]

Can curiosity be measured?

It turns out my premise was flawed. Curiosity is not a skill that can be measured in a human resource dashboard or enhanced in a corporate training program. Curiosity is an intangible personality trait. One which 18th century Irish philosopher Edmund Burke described as “the most superficial of all the affections.”

A curious four-year old asks 200-300 questions a day. The average adult asks about 20.

Superficiality aside, Fortune 500 proponents of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, a personality assessment tool, claim the test defines curiosity by aggregating 16 personality types into four “attitude styles” – extraversion/introversion, judgment/perception, thinking/feeling and sensing/intuition. Others disagree and lambaste the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator as useless. Such conflicting assessments about curiosity are not uncommon. Psychologists, neurologists and academics have failed to agree on a professional definition for curiosity for decades.

There is agreement, however, on this point: All individuals are born with an innate ability to be curious. But curiosity comes with a notable caveat: It wanes with age. Experts report a curious four-year old asks between 200-300 questions a day. The average adult asks about 20. Warren Berger, author of “A More Beautiful Question,” says the human capacity for curiosity actually peaks at age four, co-incidentally the target audience for “Curious George,” the best-selling children’s book.

One advantage of a curious culture: Creative solutions

"Cultures of curiosity are less likely to fall prey to confirmation bias or stereotyping people.”

Despite the 10-fold decline in curiosity from childhood to adulthood, research conducted by Harvard Business School's Gino (a professor of business administration), says “cultivating curiosity at all levels of an organization helps leaders and employees better adapt to uncertain market conditions and external pressures. When curiosity is triggered C-level executives think more deeply and rationally about decisions and arrive at more-creative solutions. Cultures of curiosity are less likely to fall prey to confirmation bias or stereotyping people.”

Integrating curiosity into the workplace, however, poses challenges to employees.

Ms. Gino’s research reveals this conundrum: “although 92 percent of workers credit curious people with bringing new ideas into teams and profess curiosity is a catalyst for job satisfaction, innovation and high performance, 70 percent state they face barriers to asking more questions while only 24 percent claim they feel curious in their jobs.”

[ Which IT jobs have a future? Read also: 5 flourishing and 5 fading IT careers. ]

A big omission in job postings

That employees do not more widely embrace curiosity is not a surprise. Neither do hiring managers. Burning Glass Technologies, a Boston-based analytics software firm, recently reviewed 3.5 million IT job postings searching for inclusion of one or more of these five words - “curious,” “curiosity,” “curiousness,” “inquisitive,” or “inquisitiveness” in a job description. What they found was remarkable: 97 percent of the listings were devoid of any of those words.

Dr. Rob Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, offers this explanation. “When push comes to shove,” he says, “lots of organizations don’t want people who are too curious. In addition, firms may be envisioning IT as more routine work where curiosity is a distraction.”

Ms. Gino adds, “C-level executives often shy away from encouraging curiosity because they believe the company would be harder to manage if employees were allowed to explore their own interests. The pressure of meeting short-term business goals as another inhibitor to deployment of curiosity-driven initiatives which often have longer, and more intangible, outcomes.”

How leaders can model curiosity

Google's Eric Schmidt was fond of saying "we run this company on questions not answers."

Despite those challenges, Ms. Gino steadfastly believes curiosity “matters” and advises C-level managers to proactively hire for it citing an example of how Google purchased a billboard on Highway 101 in Silicon Valley designed to attract curious engineers by anonymously asking a complex math question and including an email address for answering.

To nurture a more curious workforce, Ms. Gino recommends C-level executives "model inquisitiveness" by frequently asking questions in their daily interactions with staff members. She cites an example of how one firm hosts “why …,” “what if …,” and “how might we …” days throughout the year designed to inspire a curious, inquisitive review of the firm’s business strategy and processes.

When he was chief executive officer of Google, Eric Schmidt was fond of saying “we run this company on questions not answers.” That’s sound advice for chief information officers curious about how to most effectively deploy information technology to re-imagine their business during, and after, the Covid-19 pandemic.

Ask provocative questions. Listen. Be curious.

[ Are you leading culture change? Get the free eBook, Organize for Innovation, by Jim Whitehurst. ]

Gary Beach’s career spans over three decades in the information technology media business. He has held executive posts at McGraw-Hill and at International Data Group, where  he was publisher of Network World, Computerworld and CIO Magazine. In 1999, he was co-founder of CIO India.