The role of curiosity in the workplace has been gaining attention both in the business press and academic literature. Curiosity is generally defined as the desire, recognition and pursuit to explore novel, uncertain, complex and ambiguous events. This means that we each have within us the ability to navigate today’s volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous, or VUCA, environment. How curiosity manifests within each of us varies based on our unique core values, self-concept and situational determinants, and each unique expression of curiosity is valuable. Yet, while we all express curiosity differently, our curiosity — in all its variations — can be squashed through a single agent: conformity. Conformity involves restraining beliefs, attitudes, behaviors and actions that are suspected to (or actually do) deviate from or disrupt social expectations, conventions or norms.
Before undoing conformity in its entirety, it is important to acknowledge that conformity can serve various rational and beneficial purposes — such as creating initial stability in a turbulent environment or establishing guardrails for safety during a pandemic.
The dangers of conformity, however, are that it typically is driven by anxiety and a need to compensate for scarcity or deficiency. As a mechanism of preservation, conformity constricts our cognitive abilities and diminishes our openness to change and well-being in favor of systemic mimicry. Worse yet, conformity creates a self-reinforcing cycle, resulting in entrenched anxiety and lowered well-being throughout the organization. Symptoms of entrenched conformity include a focus on the status quo, cautiousness and control.
To avoid this fate, we need to move beyond predefined frameworks and conventional paradigms to pursue unconventional perspectives and opportunities — making possible the ability to pivot, achieve agility and accelerate change. Making this kind of shift requires embracing novelty and uncertainty — indelible characteristics of curiosity.
Part of the reason curiosity is so powerful is because it inherently involves and boosts our stress tolerance, in turn helping us cope with the anxiety, doubt and confusion associated with moving beyond the known to embrace novelty. The stress tolerance dimension of curiosity has been significantly correlated with work engagement, job satisfaction and constructive interpersonal workplace relationships.
Curiosity also is the embodiment of intrinsic motivation. When we allow employees to pursue their curiosity about organizational problems and opportunities, we promote the creation of more resilient forms of knowledge building, cultivation of shared experiences, and reinterpretation of the boundaries and nature of issues. In turn, a distribution of power and co-creation of novel approaches unfolds as employees tackle organizational problems and opportunities. In this way, we empower individuals to navigate the in-between spaces that act as fertile spaces for innovation.
For these reasons, organizations must prioritize curiosity over conformity to successfully navigate our trans-pandemic world. Three ways to do so follow.
Change the “new skill” paradigm to a “meta-skill” one.
The persistent cadence of change associated with the VUCA environment requires agility, new information and perspectives, and experimentation. Past experience rooted in conventional skills has a very short shelf life in fast-changing environments. Even hard skills remain current for only up to five years in such environments. This means that the “new skill” paradigm is really a “meta-skill” paradigm, where the skills we need to develop are those higher-order capabilities (e.g., creativity) that catalyze the development of other skills. My own and others’ research has shown that curiosity brings forth essential soft skills, such as divergent thinking and reframing, which in turn facilitates critical thinking, enables empathy (which fosters collaboration), and enlivens experimentation (which provides new insights). The result is a form of double-loop learning that helps us to think, work and act with more clarity, purpose and impact.
Create a climate of psychological safety.
Organizations that want to cultivate curiosity in their ranks need to create a climate of psychological safety, wherein employees anticipate potential rewards and support (versus censure and punishment) after taking informed interpersonal risks. If employees believe they will be ostracized for challenging the status quo or sharing a dissenting or nonconformist point of view, they will then abandon curiosity, avoid uncharted waters, and perpetuate the status quo and common business cognitive biases (e.g., confirmation bias). This is a recipe for stagnation for both employees and the organization.
To cultivate a psychologically safe work environment, opposing perspectives, dissension and debate should be actively sought and encouraged. Doing so can spark the productive conflict needed for idea generation and creative problem-solving. The result can be enhanced employee stress tolerance (critical for curiosity), expanded capacities for experimentation and improved performance. For example, leaders should model inclusive decision-making, experimentation, openness to change and agile failure and avoid (when possible) top-down decision making, preference for the status quo and controlling for agreement.
Consistently support basic psychological needs.
Maslow proposed that though we crave stability, we also paradoxically yearn for disruption (via growth). Growth, in turn, occurs when we satisfy our desires for novel information and experiences. In his 1968 book, “Toward a psychology of being,” Maslow argued that this drive for growth constitutes a fundamental psychological need and satisfying it makes us wiser, stronger, more evolved and more mature. Edward Deci and Richard Ryan evolved this Maslowian perspective through decades of research into contemporary self-determination theory, which says that everyone has basic psychological needs of autonomy (self-direction), competency (mastery) and relatedness (belonging). When these needs are met, we naturally seek out experiences that help us grow personally and professionally and enable us to connect with and contribute to others. The evidenced-based outcomes of satisfying these needs are work engagement, job satisfaction and individual well-being.
However, when we require employees to conform in thought and action, we frustrate these basic psychological needs and thwart employees’ curiosity, growth and achievement. Instead, leaders should define the why and what of the opportunities facing the organization and empower their teams to figure out the how through original, iterative and, oftentimes, unconventional processes. In this way, organizations demonstrate their commitment to exploring challenges, embracing the unfamiliar, experimenting with conceptual testing and translating failures into learnings.
Our environment is complex and constantly changing, necessitating the intentional development of meta-skills to adeptly navigate it. Organizations and their leaders must dismantle engrained conventional frameworks and legacy thinking, conformist approaches, and inflexible systems and deliberately embed curiosity if they are to succeed in the VUCA world. Adopting a contemporary view of curiosity as a meta-skill remedies the prevailing view that both oversimplifies the operationalization of curiosity in the workplace and misrepresents the barriers to curiosity. By upholding an intentional and steadfast commitment to psychological safety, pro-novelty thinking and approaches, and the satisfaction of basic psychological needs, organizations can take immediate action to enliven this crucial meta-skill and attenuate conformity.