It’s ironic to look at it this way, but when we’re looking to hire a new person for our team, we often put in a list of qualifications that are basically used to disqualify candidates. Think about it: if you’re inundated with stacks of resumes and applications, sometimes the easiest way to thin down the selection is by tossing the ones that DON’T have something you’re looking for. No MBA, for example. Or doesn’t speak Spanish.
In some cases, this works: if the position actually requires fluency in another language, there’s no need to consider applicants who don’t have that. Things like degrees, on the other hand, are kind of a gray area: an MBA doesn’t inherently make a person good at marketing, or a good fit for your company.
Where this methodology really becomes problematic, however, is in areas where it’s hard to label and even harder to measure. We’re talking about the kinds of skills that aren’t normally cultivated in the classroom…and in fact, are often discouraged. Even so, one in particular has proven to be so valuable it may define the perfect candidate: curiosity.
Valuable, but Not Encouraged
Researchers have found that curiosity is one of the most valuable attributes in the workplace. Yet businesses don’t always encourage it in employees, even though leaders typically admit to seeing its value. Why not?
It helps to think of a different situation: the military. In the armed forces, curiosity is often actively discouraged in the rank-and-file. At the bottom rungs of the ladder, soldiers are more likely to be hammered with the importance of strictly obeying authority and rigidly adhering to the chain of command. Those at the top of the food chain are looking at the big picture; people in the field are taught to almost mindlessly trust the judgement of the superiors. And to be fair, that indoctrination may save a soldier’s life in the trenches.
Unfortunately, that mindset tends to follow them as they advance in rank…and since the only way to get to the top in the military is to start at the bottom and work your way up, officers commonly put more faith in concrete things like discipline than in an abstract concepts like curiosity.
More than a few businesses today follow this same philosophy (undoubtedly exacerbated by managers with military backgrounds). Conventional thinking suggests that it will prove harder to manage employees who explore their own interests: employers would rather their teams focus on meeting deadlines or following proven revenue paths than exploring new ideas.
How a Lack of Curiosity Can Kill Innovation
But even within the military complex, there are those who understand and preach the value of curiosity. An informative article in The Military Leader points out that “…curiosity communicates certain aspects of who you are, either as a leader or member of a team.” One of the biggest benefits a sense of curiosity offers employees, leaders and businesses is innovation.
Studies by the Harvard Business Review rank curiosity as important as intelligence, and show how an increase in curiosity leads to an increase in creativity…which in turn leads to innovation, improvements in the workplace, and better solutions to problems. Conversely, an environment hostile to outside exploration can stop innovation in its tracks. Particularly in our fast-paced society and marketplace, a lack of innovation can often be the kiss of death for a business.
The Trait that Keeps on Giving
As relevant as innovation is, it’s merely the tip of the Curiosity Benefits iceberg. Studies show that curiosity can increase worker productivity foster better communication, help reduce conflict, and more. People who are encouraged to practice curiosity are more likely, for example, to share information and listen to their peers. In a competitive workplace, emphasis is placed on finding solutions that help the finder’s position. A shared sense of curiosity, on the other hand, is less concerned with receiving individual credit, and more apt to focus on finding the best answer, period.
Do You Cultivate Curiosity?
Children are curious by nature. But a test-oriented education system and a head-down work experience can snuff out that curiosity by the time some of us get to adulthood.
As a leader, do you encourage curiosity? Practice it yourself, for starters. The curious leader ask questions, takes notes, engages in meaningful dialogues, and isn’t satisfied with canned responses. He or she will integrate lessons learned from history, and is always open to new ideas. Curious leaders are constantly growing, always searching for a better answer the one who is growing somewhere, while others are content with staying in place.
Being curious typically means stepping out of your comfort zone, but willingness to learn is actually a good thing, according to successful entrepreneurs. Take small steps. Start slowly by training yourself to ask questions. As you gain confidence, sticking your neck out for a new idea will become easier. Keep moving forward, and you’ll soon find that curiosity becomes a way of life. And your people will follow suit.