Fostering Curiosity in the Healthcare Organization

By Laura Hills, DA
April 14, 2022

Most leaders will readily agree that a curious employee is a tremendous asset for any organization that is looking to improve. In spite of this, however, many will then discourage employee curiosity. This article explores the basis for this ironic disconnect and suggests that the potential benefits of having a curious workforce far outweigh the perceived risks. It explores the many benefits of employee curiosity, as well as the barriers to curiosity that are created by leaders, organizations, the employees’ broader environment, and, sometimes, the employees themselves. This article then offers 10 practical strategies healthcare leaders can use to nurture employee curiosity. It suggests that leaders put their trust in employee curiosity as a long-term investment in their organizations, citing an inspiring example from Steve Jobs. This article also suggests that curiosity is more nuanced than many people realize. It describes five dimensions of curiosity and four types of curious people. Finally, this article argues that understanding curiosity can help healthcare leaders develop their own curiosity and enable them to make better hiring and employee management decisions.

 

I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.

—Albert Einstein

 

Every now and then we come upon a topic in employee development where organizations and leaders say one thing and do another. Case in point: curiosity. If we ask leaders how they feel about employee curiosity, most will say that they’re all for it. They will say that they treasure inquisitive minds and that they want their employees to keep their eyes and ears open, to ask lots of questions, and, generally, to be curious. As wonderful as that sounds, research findings suggest that most leaders do not actually encourage or support employee curiosity. Quite the opposite. As Gino(1) reports, “Most [leaders] stifle curiosity.” In Gino’s survey of more than 3000 employees, only 24% reported feeling curious in their jobs on a regular basis, and a whopping 70% said that they face barriers to asking more questions at work. Such challenges explain why curiosity fares so poorly in the workplace. As Anderson(2) says, “Like creativity, curiosity is something that every company says it wants from employees—before throwing up barriers to prevent or contain it.”

Why do so many organizations and leaders say that they want their employees to be curious but then discourage curiosity? Gino suggests that fear is the most likely reason for this ironic disconnect, as leaders may believe that employee curiosity will increase risk and inefficiency. For example, leaders may fear that curious employees will find out about initiatives under discussion that are better kept under wraps, such as potential mergers, acquisitions, reorganizations, expansions, layoffs, lawsuits, and budget cuts. Likewise, they may fear that curiosity will lead employees to discover something personal about the leaders themselves, such as marital problems, health issues, money problems, being passed over for a promotion, friction with other leaders in the organization, or the fact that they are looking for another job. Leaders also may feel that employee curiosity suggests unhappiness with the way things are. As Tank(3) explains, “The act of questioning the status quo makes some people feel incredibly uncomfortable—especially those in positions of power.” Leaders also may discourage employee curiosity because they fear that it will lower productivity by taking the employee’s time, energy, and focus away from the tasks at hand. In fact, some leaders may believe that an employee who has time to be curious has too much time on his hands. Finally, an employee who seems excessively curious can come off as nosy, prying, and annoying. It is the rare leader who would want to be on the receiving end of intense scrutiny.

Despite leaders’ fears and concerns, there is tremendous evidence to suggest that employee curiosity usually is not excessive and that it is hugely beneficial both to the individual and to the organization. As Gino says, “The most effective leaders look for ways to nurture their employees’ curiosity to fuel learning and discovery.” In the following sections, we explore this topic more fully and focus on strategies healthcare leaders can use to nurture their employees’ curiosity.

The Benefits of Employee Curiosity

Curiosity can be defined as the recognition, pursuit, and intense desire to explore novel, challenging, and uncertain events. When we are curious, Sebang-Montefiore(4) says, “We are fully aware and receptive to whatever exists and might happen in the present moment.” Curiosity motivates people to act and think in new ways, to investigate, and to be immersed in and learn about whatever is the immediate interesting object of their attention.

Curiosity drives creativity and innovation, which are essential in today’s competitive marketplace.

A willingness to learn and to take risks is vital to the success of the modern healthcare organization. Curiosity drives creativity and innovation, which are essential in today’s competitive marketplace. As Hamilton(5) says, “Curiosity is one of the most critical determinants of performance that organizations can cultivate today.” In a volatile and competitive environment, organizations need curious employees who are driven to learn. It’s not good enough for employees to wait for the next training course. Sebang-Montefiori says, “We need people hungry to learn and who share what they are discovering so that everyone in the organization learns together.”

Arguably, employee curiosity is and always has been the most essential ingredient for innovation. This is true even when curiosity is focused on unlikely objects. For example, Tonera(6) explains, “A physician from a hospital in England was so curious about how Ferrari pit crews were able to service a car efficiently; he had a race team come to watch their operations and recommend a three-step process, which reduced the hospital’s errors by more than 50%.” Limiting employee curiosity or putting boundaries around what they can be curious about will ultimately stifle innovation, Tonera warns.

Beyond innovation, Gino suggests four additional benefits to employee curiosity:

  • Fewer decision-making errors: We make better decisions when our curiosity is triggered. That’s because, according to Gino’s research, we are less likely to fall prey to stereotyping people and to confirmation bias (looking for information that supports our beliefs rather than for evidence suggesting that we are wrong). Gino says, “Curiosity has these positive effects because it leads us to generate alternatives.”

  • More innovation and positive changes in both creative and noncreative jobs: When we are curious, we approach tough situations more effectively. Gino cites several studies that found that curiosity is associated with less defensive reactions to stress, less aggressive reactions to provocation, higher performance, and higher levels of innovation.

  • Reduced group conflict: Gino’s research also suggests that curiosity encourages members of a group to empathize with one another and to take an interest in one another’s ideas, rather than to focus only on their own perspective. Says Gino, “That causes them to work together more effectively and smoothly. Conflicts are less heated, and groups achieve better results.”

  • More open communication and better team performance: Gino found that work groups whose curiosity had been heightened (through participation in a curiosity-heightening task) communicated and performed better than the control groups in her research. “They shared information more openly and listened more carefully,” Gino says.

Employee curiosity offers several additional potential benefits. For example, Sebang-Montefiore suggests that curious employees are better learners. She says, “A curious employee who wants to learn will seek out the resources that suit their learning style and other preferences.” As well, Sebang-Montefiore says, research supports that curiosity is associated with less aggressive reactions to perceived triggers, improved conflict resolution skills, less attachment to one’s own ideas, and increased interest in others’ ideas.

CMA(7) suggests that curious employees adapt to change more easily and quickly. As CMA says, “Cultivating curiosity helps employees and their leaders adapt to market conditions and pressures.” CMA also suggests that curiosity helps leaders to gain respect from their employees by “building a more trusting and collaborative relationship.”

When we are curious, we may become more open-minded.


Finally, Cabbat(8) believes that increasing our curiosity can help us to grow individually, both personally and professionally. For example, curiosity can make us braver. According to Cabbat, “People who are curious are not afraid of feeling uncomfortable and facing the unknown. They take action. They are more open to getting out of their comfort zones for the sake of learning more about what they are passionate about.” Curiosity also leads to humility, Cabbat says, because curious people are constantly learning and “know that they don’t know all the answers.” Curiosity also makes people more self-aware. Cabbat says, “When we are curious, we are more willing to experiment to see what works and what doesn’t. We want to find ways to improve our skills and be a better version of ourselves.” As well, when we are curious, we may become more open-minded. We are more open to exposing ourselves to different ideas and cultures. Instead of judging others, we ask questions to help us understand “where they come from,” Cabbat says.

Barriers that Inhibit Employee Curiosity

What gets in the way of employee curiosity? As we discussed earlier, a leader’s fears of increased risk and lower productivity can. But there are several other barriers to employee curiosity, such as the following:

  • Leaders sometimes have the wrong mindset about exploration. Gino explains, “Leaders often think that letting employees follow their curiosity will lead to a costly mess.” In one of Gino’s studies, leaders shied away from encouraging curiosity because they believed the company would be harder to manage if people were allowed to explore their own interests. They also believed that disagreements would increase, decisions would take longer, and, as a result, the cost of doing business would go up. Gino says that this isn’t necessarily what happens when employees are curious and urges leaders to change their thinking and to keep the bigger picture in mind. Says Gino, “Exploration often involves questioning the status quo and doesn’t always produce useful information. But it also means not settling for the first possible solution—and so it often yields better remedies.”

  • Leaders sometimes seek efficiency to the detriment of exploration. Gino cites the example of Henry Ford to illustrate how a leader can take efficiency too far. Ford’s single-minded focus on efficiency is what led to his initial success in the car industry, Gino says. However, it also left the door wide open for Ford’s competitors to gain an advantage over him. Gino explains, “In the late 1920s, as the U.S. economy rose to new heights, consumers started wanting greater variety in their cars. While Ford remained fixated on improving the Model T, competitors such as General Motors started producing an array of models and soon captured the main share of the market.” Because of Ford’s single-minded focus on efficiency, Gino says, he and his employees stopped being curious, stopped experimenting and innovating, and fell behind.

  • Curious employees will go where they will be heard. Employees may not enjoy working in an environment where their curiosity is discouraged and unappreciated. As Tank warns, “If employees don’t feel comfortable voicing their ideas at work, they will either shut down or allow their curiosity to take them elsewhere.”

  • Employees are afraid to be curious. Hamilton(9) has conducted research that suggests that our own fears can inhibit our curiosity. “We can all fear failure, embarrassment and loss of control,” Hamilton says, and not allow ourselves to cultivate or indulge our curiosity.

  • Employees make faulty assumptions. Most of us assume at some time or other that we won’t be interested in something that requires a lot of hard work or study, or that others won’t appreciate or see the need for something that makes us curious. We may assume that whatever we are contemplating can’t be done. Faulty assumptions such as these can lead to the “voice in our head” that dampens our curiosity and discourages further exploration, Hamilton says.

  • The employee’s environment is pessimistic or encourages the status quo. Leaders aren’t the only ones who can quash employee curiosity. Hamilton says, “Everyone from our educators, family, friends, workers, peers and even connections on social media can impact what we desire to explore.”

Ten Ways to Encourage and Foster Employee Curiosity

It takes thought and discipline for leaders to stop stifling curiosity and start fostering it. However, as Tank suggests, it is up to you to do it, or it won’t happen. According to Tank, “Responsibility for creating and nurturing an inquisitive work environment lies100 percent with upper management.” Here are ten strategies healthcare leaders can use.

  1. Hire curious employees. It will be much easier to hire employees who are already curious than to develop curiosity where it doesn’t exist. To assess curiosity, Gino suggests, ask job candidates about their interests outside of work. “Reading books unrelated to one’s own field and exploring questions just for the sake of knowing the answers are indications of curiosity,” Gino says. Also look for job candidates who express curiosity about your healthcare organization. For instance, candidates who want to know about aspects of the organization that aren’t directly related to the job at hand probably have more natural curiosity than people who ask only about the role they would perform, Gino says. As well, if job candidates ask you no questions, or questions that can easily be answered in a short visit to your website, they probably aren’t very curious.

  2. Create a diverse team. It’s easy for employees to become complacent when everyone on the team is from a similar background and has similar experiences. As Yoko(10) suggests, “A diversity of people leads to better ideas and greater curiosity.”

  3. Change your physical environment. A simple change of space can free up inhibitions to curiosity and release employees from the customs and norms associated with their typical office environment. As Gino suggests, “Deliberate thinking about workspaces can broaden networks and encourage the cross-pollination of ideas.” When redesigning your workplace, for instance, choose open concept design strategies that will encourage collaboration. ViGlobal(9) suggests that you create an “innovation area” where employees can step away from their emails and other distractions and let their curiosity soar. Or, Ideo(11) suggests, “Try an offsite location for your next staff meeting, like a coworking space or café, or meet in an unconventional space like a yoga studio, garden, or museum.” If nothing else, choose a different meeting room than your usual go-to spot or move the chairs and tables to create a different feel in the space, Ideo says.

  4. Make time for exploration. Healthcare organizations can foster curiosity by giving employees time and resources to explore their interests. This can be an ongoing practice, or you can designate “what if,” “why,” and “how might we” days, Gino says.

  5. Invite and actively plant the seeds for curiosity. Gino cites one study in which a short text messages sent to employees twice a week for four weeks increased their innovative behaviors at work. For instance, employees receiving those messages suggested more solutions to pressing organizational problems. Here is the content of that message: “What is one topic or activity you are curious about today? What is one thing you usually take for granted that you want to ask about? Please make sure you ask a few ‘Why questions’ as you engage in your work throughout the day. Please set aside a few minutes to identify how you’ll approach your work today with these questions in mind.”

  6. Reward curiosity. Hamilton suggests, “You can also spark curiosity by rewarding curious employees.” Curiosity rewards may include certificates, recognizing efforts, praise, and celebrating successes publicly, Hamilton says. As well, you can assess and reward curiosity at your regular employee performance reviews. If so, be sure to tell your employees that you will be doing so well in advance of your reviews so they will have the time they need to develop their curiosity.

  7. Become a curiosity role model. Leaders who approach their own work with a sense of unbridled curiosity foster employees who are more likely to do the same. One of the best ways to demonstrate and model curiosity is to solicit your employees regularly for their feedback. For example, Gino cites the example of one leader who asked his employees, “What is the one thing I should do to make things better for you?” That leader also asked employees to tell him the one thing he should do to make things better for their customers. By asking questions such as these and genuinely listening to the responses, that leader modeled the importance of being curious and listening. “He also highlighted the fact that when we are exploring new terrain, listening is as important as talking,” Gino says, another worthwhile lesson for your employees.

  8. Teach employees to ask better questions. Employees may not ask good questions because they are afraid to do so or don’t know how. As McKale(12) suggests, “Any curiosity they had they’ll try to hide because they don’t want to ask ‘dumb questions’ and come across as naïve.” Therefore, refrain from giving negative feedback about a question an employee asks you. As well, encourage more and better questions by saying, “Great question.” That little bit of praise is very reinforcing and will encourage the employee and others to ask more questions. Likewise, Quora(13) says, “Make it clear that no one will be judged or punished for asking a question.” Keep track of and share excellent questions, giving credit where it is due. For instance, you might say, “John in Accounting asked a great question the other day and I’d like to share it with you all,” Quora says.

  9. Embrace new ideas. For curiosity to thrive, employees must feel safe enough to suggest or try new things without fear of repercussion. Hamilton(14) advises, “If you want your employees to feel comfortable doing either of these things, you must foster a culture that embraces new ideas.” Be sure to tell your employees that their proposals are wanted and valued, Hamilton says.

  10. Remove obstacles to employee curiosity. Cultivate a culture of curiosity in your organization by identifying naysayers who shoot down or reject curiosity. Resch(15) calls such individuals “potential blockers.” Intervene to protect your employees by addressing the negative behavior in private. Make it clear to potential blockers that their negativity can’t and must not continue, and why.

Put Your Trust in Curiosity

Most of the breakthrough discoveries and remarkable inventions throughout history resulted from curiosity. Legendary and disruptive business leaders, from Walt Disney to Michael Dell, have stressed the importance of curiosity. As you can see from his words at the beginning of this article, even Albert Einstein said that it was curiosity, and not special talents, that set him apart from others. Einstein said further of his curiosity, “Most people stop looking when they find the proverbial needle in the haystack. I would continue to keep looking to see if there were other needles.”

Steve Jobs also made a case for curiosity in his 2005 commencement address at Stanford University. “Much of what I stumbled into by following my curiosity and intuition turned out to be priceless later on,” Jobs said. When Jobs briefly attended Reed College, he noted that every poster on campus was beautifully hand-lettered. After he dropped out, he registered for a calligraphy class to learn how he could write in beautiful calligraphy style. He learned many things in that class, including what makes for great typography. “None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life,” Jobs told the Class of 2005. He was simply curious. “But 10 years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography.”

It’s difficult, if not impossible, to plot out all the ways that employee curiosity will lift your healthcare organization. So don’t try. And don’t look for a quick payoff. You will need the patience of Jobs, who said, “You have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.” For now, focus your time and attention on developing a curious workforce and culture. Then, as Anderson suggests, “Get comfortable with not knowing how and when you’ll get your biggest curiosity dividend.” In time, Anderson says, that dividend will come your way and be well worth your effort.

Curiosity Is Far More Nuanced Than You May Think

Just as there are multiple kinds of intelligence (e.g., linguistics, kinetic, logical/mathematical), there are multiple dimensions of curiosity. So conclude Kashdan et al.(16) after synthesizing decades of research on curiosity. Kashdan and his team argue that curiosity is far more nuanced than typical descriptions in scientific articles, business books, and media stories. They conducted multiple studies of nearly 4000 adults in total to test a new model of curiosity and found evidence for five specific dimensions of curiosity:

  • Joyous exploration curiosity: You are filled with wonder and fascinated by the world, such as when you travel to a new place, discover a new artist you love, or pursue a new hobby.

  • Need to know curiosity (deprivation sensitivity): You feel uncomfortable because there is a gap in your knowledge, and you must fill that gap. For example, you may be preparing a big presentation and feel that it isn’t very engaging or inspiring. You wonder: What do I need to know and do to fix it?

  • Social curiosity: You want to know more about other people. You observe and talk to them to try to find out what they want, what will make them say yes, what will make them trust you, and what will get them to change their minds.

  • Accepting anxiety curiosity (stress tolerance): You tolerate the uncomfortable feelings that often come with new experiences, and you don’t allow them to hold you back. For example, you take a job in a new department even though you don’t know any of the people who work there.

  • Thrill-seeking curiosity: You take risks because you enjoy new and exciting experiences. You don’t just tolerate the adrenalin rush and anxiety; you crave them because you get something positive from them.

From these five dimensions, Kashdan et al. drill down to the four types of curious people:

  • The fascinated score high in all five dimensions of curiosity, but highest in “joyous exploration”;

  • Problem solvers score high in “need to know/deprivation sensitivity,” but achieve only medium scores in the other dimensions;

  • Empathizers assess high in “social curiosity,” but medium in other dimensions; and

  • Avoiders assess low in all dimensions, particularly “stress tolerance.”

Leaders can focus on the dimensions of curiosity that come most easily to them and develop them as strengths. For example, leaders who have a high level of social curiosity can seek more opportunities to learn about others and teach their employees how to be more socially curious. Those who have a high level of accepting anxiety curiosity (stress tolerance) can share their insights with employees who are going through a stressful time or finding change difficult. And those who have a high level of need-to-know curiosity (deprivation sensitivity) can focus on solving problems and teach problem-solving skills to their employees.

Leaders also can focus on the dimensions of curiosity that they find most challenging and work to improve them. For example, if they have a low level of “joyous exploration” curiosity, they may find it beneficial to go on a trip, take a course, or develop a new hobby to spark new interests. Or if that doesn’t do the trick, they may want to work with a counselor to figure out why they have such a low level of wondering about and fascination with the world around them. Or if leaders have a low level of social curiosity, they can take a course or read books to help them develop their social skills. They can also seek opportunities to practice their social skills by observing, talking, and listening to people more actively.

Leaders also can use the five dimensions of curiosity to make better hiring and management decisions. For example, they may be able to identify job candidates and employees who have a high level of thrill-seeking curiosity. Such individuals may crave the adrenalin rush so much that they will create thrills where they don’t need to exist. Specifically, they may delay tasks so just they must rush to meet a deadline, throwing themselves and those around them into a mad scramble. They also may need new and exciting experiences more often than other employees, become bored and restless more easily, and/or hop from job to job. Thrill-seeking candidates may also be more likely than others to pick a fight with a coworker, make a mistake, or “forget” to do something, just to create a stressful situation. For these reasons, they are more likely than others to make their coworkers unhappy and, if hired, to need closer management and supervision.

Likewise, leaders will want to pay close attention when they encounter a job candidate or employee who has a low level of stress tolerance. Such individuals may find it harder than others to adapt to new technologies, systems, leaders, coworkers, surroundings, and other changes. They may dig in their heels, become anxious, or avoid implementing changes more than other employees. Like thrill seekers, they may require closer management and supervision.


References

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  2. Anderson BM. How you can develop a curious workforce—and reap the benefits. LinkedIn Talent Blog. June 12, 2019. www.linkedin.com/business/talent/blog/talent-engagement/how-to-develop-and-benefit-from-curious-workforce. Accessed July 21, 2021.

  3. Tank A. Most employees don’t feel curious at work, and CEOs should be worried. Tech in Asia. September 27, 2018. www.techinasia.com/talk/employees-not-curious-ceos-worried. Accessed July 12, 2021.

  4. Sebang-Montefiore L. The curious employee. Undercover Recruiter. https://theundercoverrecruiter.com/the-curious-employee/. Accessed July 14, 2021.

  5. Hamilton D. How to instill curiosity in the workplace. Forbes. April 3, 2020. www.forbes.com/sites/forbescoachescouncil/2020/04/03/how-to-instill-curiosity-in-the-workplace/?sh=31989f142e20. Accessed July 14, 2021.

  6. Tonerra. Curious about the most important trait companies need to develop in their employees? Cision. November 12, 2018. www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/curious-about-the-most-important-trait-companies-need-to-develop-in-their-employees-300748038.html. Accessed July 14, 2021.

  7. CMA. The benefits of curiosity in the workplace. CMA Blog. January 7, 2019. www.cmaconsult.com/the-benefits-of-curiosity-in-the-workplace/. Accessed July 16, 2021.

  8. Cabbat ME. The benefits of being curious. Thrive Global. February 22, 2019. https://thriveglobal.com/stories/the-benefits-of-developing-curiosity/. Accessed July 16, 2021.

  9. Yoko E. Fostering your curiosity can lead to success and happiness at work—here’s how. Thrive Global. April 17, 2019. https://thriveglobal.com/stories/ways-to-foster-curiosity-at-work-tips/. Accessed July 19, 2021.

  10. ViGlobal. Encourage employee curiosity to foster innovation. ViGlobal. www.viglobal.com/2019/11/12/encourage-employee-curiosity-to-foster-innovation/. Accessed July 19, 2021.

  11. Ideo. 3 tips for encouraging curiosity at work. Ideo. www.ideou.com/blogs/inspiration/3-tips-for-encouraging-curiosity-at-work. Accessed July 19, 2021.

  12. McKale L. 7 ways to nurture employee curiosity—and keep ’em engaged. Resourceful Manager. www.resourcefulmanager.com/employee-curiosity/. Accessed July 17, 2021.

  13. Quora. Why the best managers encourage their employees to question everything. Forbes. November 27, 2018. www.forbes.com/sites/quora/2018/11/27/why-the-best-managers-encourage-their-employees-to-question-everything/?sh=621ffbc74bc5. Accessed July 19, 2021.

  14. Hamilton D. How to create a culture of curiosity at your company. Cornerstone. November 28, 2018. www.cornerstoneondemand.com/resources/blogs/how-create-culture-curiosity-your-company/. Accessed July 19, 2021.

  15. Resch S. 7 ways to cultivate a culture of curiosity and confidence. Domo. October 1, 2020. www.domo.com/blog/7-ways-to-cultivate-a-culture-of-curiosity-and-confidence/. Accessed July 19, 2021.

  16. Kashdan T, Disabato DJ, Goodman FR, Naughton C. The five dimensions of curiosity. Harvard Business Review. September-October 2018. https://hbr.org/2018/09/the-five-dimensions-of-curiosity. Accessed July 21, 2021.

 

 

 

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