Several comments in response to my recent competency-focused post led me to also consider the importance of curiosity in the workplace. Interestingly enough, recent experiences have given me a chance to see firsthand the benefits of nurturing curiosity and how to do so as part of the DNA of the work environment.

Curiosity is a vital element in all aspects of innovation, yet is tightly confined by many companies to only certain stages of developing solutions. It’s a characteristic that all companies claim to value, but that many companies, in their actual culture, firmly suppress.

Curiosity increases employees’ value to the company and amplifies employees’ enjoyment of their jobs. The idea of actively fostering it in their teams, however, often makes company leaders uneasy. Why does this disconnect exist, and what can leaders do to encourage the benefits curiosity brings to both employees and the company?

Why curious employees are good for a business

First, let’s see what benefits curious employees bring to a business. A 2012 Gallup study pointed to presence of curiosity, optimism and self-motivation in entrepreneurs. Tony Vartanian, co-founder of mobile game company Lucktastic, takes those findings one step further in a CIO article, applying the value of curiosity also to employees.

Vartanian points out, “Intellectually curious persons bring their willingness to invest in themselves throughout their tenure with [the company]. … Those that don’t continue to grow will become outdated rather quickly and provide less value to their teams and the company.”

Lest we think that the notion of curiosity being good for business is new, decades ago Walt Disney stated that his company is managing to innovate “because we’re curious, and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.”

Curiosity instills greater optimism. And with optimism comes a willingness to pursue solutions beyond the point where a less optimistic employee would give up.

Curious employees also show greater interest in job-related learning and a greater ability to retain and apply what they learn. Rather than seeing training as a chore, they embrace it and keep learning long after less curious employees decide that they have learned enough.

This makes curious employees better able to adapt to workplace changes. By not stopping at just what they need to know to perform their work, they are more prepared when change takes them beyond initial work requirements. Which is increasingly happening in today’s fast-changing, innovation-driven marketplace.

Why being curious is good for employees

Embracing learning is not a selfless gesture for the benefit of employers. A 2014 study on curiosity’s effect on the brain showed some fascinating results.

When a person feels curious, it launches a chain of events. It first activates the pleasure center of the brain, which, in turn, activates the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for forming new memories. Thus, the learner feels pleasure due to stimulating the pleasure center, and retains the learning better due to the hippocampus embedding the learning more firmly in the brain.

Not only does this phenomenon affect what someone learns about the subject that sparked the curiosity, but also any other subjects the person encounters while the brain is in this state. In other words, curious learners will better absorb and retain any – even unrelated – subject matter they encounter while engaged in satisfying their curiosity. Curiosity supercharges the brain for learning.

It should be no surprise, then, that curious employees feel a greater sense of mastery of their jobs and greater job satisfaction. In fact, a Rackspace survey of employees showed that 85% of respondents that came from what were deemed to be “curiosity-encouraging” employers expressed satisfaction in their jobs, compared to only 45% of respondents that came from “curiosity-discouraging” employers.

Importantly as well, Harvard Business Review believes that “…Curious People Are Destined for the C-Suite.” As do more than a thousand CEOs that in a recent PwC survey[PDF] cited curiosity as a critical leadership trait necessary to navigate challenging times.

Why most businesses fall short in fostering curiosity

One would think from these studies that businesses would highly value employee curiosity. The truth is, though, that, while almost all businesses “talk the talk” about the importance of curiosity, far fewer “walk the walk.”

A study done by noted curiosity researcher Todd B. Kashdan in connection with Merck KGaA reported that 65% of respondents felt that curiosity was an important element in developing new ideas, yet almost the same percentage reported that they felt constrained from asking questions on the job. That same study also showed that 84% of respondents claimed that their companies valued creativity, but 60% described barriers by which their company essentially stifled it. What leads to this disconnect?

Many companies discourage questioning of systems or processes that leadership has already established. This effectively locks those companies into a single course set by past decisions rather than exploring possible better courses.

To counteract this, leaders must be willing to accept questioning, even of our most prized decisions. Beyond that, we must demonstrate our willingness to consider alternatives and to encourage that same willingness in employees so they will not feel that asking questions puts them at risk.

Another barrier that companies place in the way of curiosity comes from leadership reluctance to give employees time to explore and practice new approaches. Many curiosity-encouraging companies provide time during the work week for employees to explore projects that, while not directly related to that employee’s assigned tasks, could benefit the business.

Such time for independent exploration is often lost in hectic work schedules and sometimes viewed by wary leaders as time wasted on endeavors that might not align with leadership goals. Refusal to explore any potentially useful new avenues, however, will eventually stifle all useful new avenues, except those proposed by an anointed few at the top of the pyramid.

The way to keep independent exploration from drifting into tangents is with clear communication. If employees clearly understand leadership goals, they are less likely to wander off course. Curiosity, when guided, offers employers far more benefits than drawbacks.

How we can identify and hire curious employees

With employee curiosity clearly something to seek and nurture, we then come to the question of how to do so. Before we get into specific strategies, though, one thing bears mentioning.

Seek diverse backgrounds and viewpoints. When assembling a team, sameness is not necessarily beneficial. New perspectives fuel curiosity. Although progress requires cohesive teamwork, leaders should not hesitate to include people from varied backgrounds and perspectives, provided they can work in a diverse environment and are not lone wolves who are incapable of considering any perspective but their own.

Clues to identifying curious workers before the interview

Assess cover letters for curiosity. Cover letters can provide valuable hints of applicants’ curiosity. Cover letters that show a solid grasp of your company reveal applicants who were curious enough to research your company instead of immediately sending a generic cover letter.

Assess resumes for curiosity. Resumes also can reveal an applicant’s curiosity level. Look for efforts toward self-improvement that do not appear to be strictly job related. A San Francisco State University study reveals that creative activities outside the workplace have a significant effect on workplace performance. Resumes that cite non-work-related self-improvement, volunteer accomplishments or pride in hobby achievements reveal applicants that have curiosity and self-motivation that will carry into the workplace.

Clues to identifying curious workers during the interview

Test applicants’ curiosity when you invite them to interview. Describe an intriguing situation they might experience on the job, and ask them to be ready to discuss how they would handle it as part of the interview. The level of engagement they put into the exercise will tell you volumes about their curiosity and their ability to direct it toward-solutions.

Explore applicants’ past use of curiosity on the job. Have them give examples of how they thought outside the box in previous jobs to achieve positive outcomes.

Ask about past self-learning endeavors and how they tackled them, even if they didn’t cite any on their resume. If their resume was loaded with job-related accomplishments, they may simply have not had space to include curiosity-revealing indicators. The same goes for asking about what they are proud of having accomplished in volunteer activities and hobbies.

Explore applicants’ ability to apply curiosity in a team setting. Ask them to describe the most satisfying task they have ever done as part of a team and to walk you through the workings of the team, their contributions to it and the results they achieved.

Pay attention to their questions. Do they ask generic questions that show little originality, or do they display curiosity and incisiveness?

How we can help employee curiosity flourish

Having identified and hired curious employees, how do we keep that curiosity active in the workplace? Fueling employees’ curiosity takes determined effort.

Make curiosity part of the DNA of work efforts

Model curiosity. First and foremost, if you want to encourage curiosity in your team, model it. Keep an open mind. Be willing to question the status quo. Be always in search of a better way.

Clearly communicate desired outcomes. Give employees the autonomy, though, to seek the best way to achieve them, rather than giving them an unalterable roadmap that they must blindly follow.

Include curiosity as one of the criteria in feedback and promotions. Make it clear that experimentation done for long-term benefit is good if the insights it produces can yield future benefits, even if doesn’t produce immediate benefits.

Make curiosity a team endeavor. Encourage team members to share perspectives on problems rather than limiting themselves to only their own.

Assess the role that curiosity played in completed projects. After a project is finished, debrief employees, asking them to describe their thought processes and choices along each step. Encourage them to assess where what they learned could enrich future projects.

Encourage curiosity in continued learning

Support ongoing learning. Company policies that incentivize continuing education are valuable, but don’t stop there. Provide learning opportunities, such as presentations, lunch-and-learns, organized study of books or professional journals that expand understanding of new technologies or trends important to your work responsibilities.

Encourage employee initiative. Instead of always scheduling outside experts to give presentations, invite employees to expand their own expertise by researching and presenting key topics to the team. Similarly, you can make it a practice that, whenever a team member returns from a conference, they present what they learned to the group. This not only benefits the team, but also helps the presenter retain more of the insights they learned.

Make learning opportunities active, instead of passive. When you have a presentation or other learning activity, challenge team members to find ways to apply what they’ve learned directly to their daily work. Invite them to explore how the team could apply those insights to improve business processes or benefit clients.

Encourage curiosity outside the workplace

Considering the findings of the San Francisco State University study mentioned earlier of how employees’ nonwork passions improve workplace performance, giving employees affirmation and recognition for nonwork curiosity and creativity makes perfect sense. Here are some ways.

Organize events that recognize employee creativity and initiative. Showcase employees’ creative pursuits in events, such as art and craft shows, cooking competitions or other creative platforms. Such events can easily serve double duty, as well, by linking them with a charitable endeavor through a nominal donation as an entry fee for participants or to allow nonparticipants to sample foods prepared in a cooking competition.

Give recognition for volunteer accomplishments. Call out the volunteer efforts or special outside-the-workplace accomplishments of employees through a monthly recognition program that publicizes outstanding accomplishments.

Conclusion

Companies routinely strive to be ahead of the curve, on the cutting edge, leading the way in their industry. Yet how can a business be any of those things if it does not foster creativity throughout all levels of the organization? Even at the levels where workers are counted on to do mundane, repetitive tasks, opportunities still exist to find ways to do them more efficiently.

Creativity does not have to be constrained to keep it from becoming a distraction from leadership’s goals. Creativity, nurtured and directed toward those goals, can help achieve them—and even help them evolve into superior goals that never would have been envisioned without the infusion of further creativity.

When you stop asking questions, thinking that you have all the answers you need, you stop finding better answers. Curiosity is the lifeblood of innovation. The unleashed curiosity of an entire organization can make the difference between merely adequate solutions and truly visionary ones.

Thanks

I give hearty thanks to those commenters who nudged my mind into this exploration, as well as to the activities at PwC that gave clarity to it.