Recently I was in a meeting with a consulting client that went south quickly when the person leading it turned a collaborative conversation into an intimidating interrogation of their staff.
All of a sudden, one of my favorite words — why? — was being used not as an invaluable tool to unlock creativity and cooperation, but instead as a means of interrogation.
This was a fascinating revelation for someone like me, dedicated to reinvigorating curiosity in founders, business leaders, and entrepreneurs.
All of this got me wondering about the downside of curiosity, where humble inquiry (also the title of an excellent book by Edgar and Peter Schein) becomes a horrible inquisition. How and why does this happen? And what can we do to ensure that the people you work with wield wonder in a productive way?
Rather than react, I prefer to respond — always a good tactic when you feel upset, derailed, and discouraged. After all, I imagine my client’s team members felt this way after that difficult meeting.
Now, I’ve done a lot of research over the years on curiosity because, as mentioned, I’m focused on teaching people how to open their minds. After all, at the heart of every successful person is intellectual curiosity and a propensity to learn — combined with a focus on something bigger than themselves. Research shows when curiosity is fired up in the business realm, there is a range of benefits, including:
- Fewer decision-making mistakes
- Less conflict among team members
- More innovation and positive changes (even for workers who aren’t in traditionally creative roles)
- Improved communication
- Better overall team performance
But clearly, the version of curiosity my client’s team was subjected to had the opposite effect: there was increased conflict, worse decision-making, a communication breakdown, and a hit to their collective productivity (and morale). It turns out that’s because not all curiosity is created equal: a recent study from a team of researchers from George Mason University, Time, Inc., and The Marketing and Research Resources Lab led by curiosity expert Todd Kashdan, PhD., reveals that curiosity comes in a few different flavors and is expressed differently depending on your personality type.
First off, there are a couple of different versions of curiosity:
- The desire to know or do something for the learning process or experience.
- The desire to resolve uncertainty or ambiguity, release tension, and get relief from frustration or feeling “less than” because you don’t know something.
You can spot the difference right away: the first looks at curiosity as enjoyable and positive. And the second frames curiosity as borne from neuroses and fear.
Dr. Kashdan’s research looks more carefully at the downside of curiosity and how negative underpinnings can make questioning an anxiety-driven experience.
Let’s take a closer look at the five dimensions of curiosity.
This is essentially a pure version of the first kind of curiosity — enjoying exploration and experimentation. The researchers found that out of all of the factors of curiosity, “joyous exploration” correlated most highly with the kinds of things we all want: well-being, happiness, and a sense of purpose. This state of wonder supports a high level of personal motivation for being proactive and resilient. When you are involved with joyous exploration, uncertainty is exciting and even fun.
On the other end of the spectrum is “deprivation sensitivity.” This kind of curiosity is all about being part of the pack and not getting left out. A strong sense that you “need to know” so you can achieve your goals (vs. getting pleasure from exploration) is the telltale aspect of this dimension. If your curiosity is rooted in deprivation sensitivity, then you’re more likely to be anxious and tense about acquiring the knowledge you feel you need.
The “stress tolerance” factor is a significant marker for those who consider themselves very independent, resilient, and full of grit. Asking hard questions isn’t difficult for these people; in fact, the research found these types exhibit a lot of psychological flexibility and embrace the stress and ambiguity that comes with exploring new, abstract, or complex ideas or situations.
This kind of curiosity is all about the quest to make meaningful connections with other people. In other words, people with a lot of social curiosity are the opposite of the lone wolf stress-tolerant personality. Social curiosity is the ultimate kumbaya factor, driven by creating a sense of togetherness and fostering a feeling of belonging. On the flip side, social curiosity can be all about being nosey and overly involved in other people’s business.
This kind of curiosity is what it sounds like: a little bit hedonistic, a lot about pushing boundaries. How can you get more out of life? And by more, I mean more pleasure, excitement, and fun. In contrast to joyous exploration, thrill-seeking is less about growth and development and more about making the most out of your time on this mortal coil.
The five dimensions are just a starting point — everyone probably has at least a little bit of each factor in them at any given time. So, the researchers came up with four distinct types of curious people based on the dimensions and related attributes each most heavily exhibits.
Scored highest on joyous exploration, stress tolerance, and thrill-seeking; lowest on deprivation sensitivity.
The name gives it away — The Fascinated are into learning, growing, and expanding. They tend to be extroverted, enjoying all the world has to offer. They devour information from many different resources, have expertise in more than one realm, and care deeply about issues that affect our world, like social justice or environmental challenges. The Fascinated are confident and independent but also enjoy romance and have lots of friends.
The one area they scored lowest out of all the types was feeling like their life was under control. Then again, if you see life as an experiment, being the “control” is not so appealing.
Scored highest on deprivation sensitivity; high on joyous exploration; low on social curiosity
After the Fascinated, Problem Solvers had a lot of areas of expertise, an average amount of interests, and a moderate amount of friends. They tend to be very open, conscientious, engaged, and agreeable, if a bit neurotic. They’re average in terms of independence, hedonism, and romance. And Problem Solvers give the impression their life is under control with a higher than average tolerance for stress.
Interestingly, Problem Solvers have the lowest social curiosity of any of the curiosity types.
Scored highest on social curiosity and low on thrill-seeking
Second only to the Fascinated, Empathizers are in touch with their own emotions and those of others. It makes sense, then, that they should have expertise in many fields and also score high for status, openness, agreeableness, and conscientiousness. They also are on the neurotic side of the fence — which makes sense, given that they use their curiosity to relate to others (and perhaps take on some of their concerns).
Scored the lowest on stress tolerance in particular, but all of the other dimensions, too
Highly neurotic and far less agreeable, open, or conscientious, Avoiders are apathetic about new situations, not particularly expert or passionate about things, and the least social of all other types. They’re more likely to feel stressed and less likely to be able to handle challenging situations. In other words, avoiders aren’t all that curious.
Who’s Asking the Questions?
Good question, right? And now that you have at least four answers — Fascinated, Problem Solvers, Empathizers, or Avoiders — who would you want to work with?
This is something I think business leaders should, well, get more curious about. Whether you’re hiring a team member, onboarding a new client, interviewing a vendor, or starting to work with anyone new, you must pay attention to the person’s curiosity factor.
Do they ask questions with a joyous sense of exploration? Or are they more interested in their social status? Are their questions coming from a place of fear, anger, and dread, or is their line of inquiry open, empathetic, and expansive?
As I mentioned earlier, I often say that curiosity in business is broken. That is, in part, thanks to the corporate mentality. If you’ve got a strategy that’s worked well in the past, why not keep iterating on that one note?
That’s a superficial question. And it doesn’t get at the real question: does your team have the kind of curiosity necessary to innovate? If what you see is what I saw in the meeting — lots of pointing fingers and deflecting, no room for spirited debate — you’re in trouble. If you’ve got leadership or a staff filled with Avoiders, there’s no question: there is no room for innovation, just a lot of scrambling to cover one’s you-know-what.
Are you feeling stuck? Think you have to change jobs, fire your staff, or otherwise blow it all up to get the progress you seek? Well, there are many ways to change that… which is what I told my client after I gently talked him down. By leading with positive curiosity (ideally, Joyous Exploration, but other types can work well too), you have the power to unlock possibilities and pave the way to a healthier, happier business. For example, several design thinking exercises, like 101 Uses and the classic “Five Whys,” can help make it easy and fun to inject curiosity into your work environment.
Do you have questions about curiosity and how to use wonder to unlock your business growth? Hit me up in the comments.