A fascinating new study has highlighted a ‘curiosity gap’ between senior leaders and their staff. Carried out by researchers at INSEAD and Surveymonkey, the study – featured on the Harvard Business Review’s website  – indicates that employees place less value in curiosity than their leaders.
After surveying more than 23,000 people, including 16,000 workers and 1,500 C-suite figures, the researchers found that while 83% of bosses feel that they encourage curiosity in the workplace, only 52% of employees agree.
And while almost half of the senior leaders (49%) in the sample think that the fruits of curiosity are naturally expressed in the form of higher salaries, just 16% of the workers feel that is the case.
The researchers note: “Our data strongly suggest[s] that curiosity helps employees engage more deeply in their work, generate new ideas, and share those ideas with others. When feeling curious at work, 73% of individual contributors report [that it is likely they are] ‘sharing ideas more’ and ‘generating new ideas for their organisations.’”
They add: “Successful organisations are rooted in curiosity. To generate new ideas and add value to their organisations, employees at all levels need an environment where they can be curious, seek and absorb new information, and make new connections. A disconnect between leaders’ and employees’ assumptions about the value of curiosity within an organisation prevents new information from flowing into the organisation.
“Unless leaders can see the barriers to curiosity throughout their organisations and create systems for it to flourish, they will remain in a prison of their own construction: believing themselves free to be curious and therefore believing everyone else is equally curious and unimpeded.”
What can leaders do to convey the value of curiosity to their staff, and to inspire their curiosity to new heights?
The Institute of Leadership & Management's head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “Typically, if you ask managers and employees their views on a particular topic, there will be a disconnect between what managers think is going on and how employees are experiencing the same conditions. This is unsurprising: if we take hierarchies, power dynamics and different levels of experience into account, not everyone will be on the same page. That the managers in this sample think they are encouraging curiosity, and yet the employees are not experiencing that, offers insights into organisational politics and power dynamics – particularly around whose ideas get listened to, and accepted.”
She notes: “if you’re going to encourage ideas, and create a culture in which curiosity is rewarded, then you must reframe your approach to performance. If you only measure performance retrospectively – without building time into the working week that will enable staff to be curious – then you will certainly stifle a baseline level of ideas exploration.”
However, Cooper points out, “there is also the question of how those ideas, or expressions of curiosity, are handled. One of the difficulties of asking people for their ideas is the need to have in place a system for rejecting those that are – for whatever reason –unsuitable, in a way that doesn’t deflate or discourage the workers who have brought them to light. Perhaps, in some cases, ideas are dismissed too readily or too thoughtlessly, leaving staff wondering why they bother to present them.
“So that could be one area in which leaders may want to reassess their behaviours. They can build time into the process. They can think about how to administrate the ideas that aren’t successful, so that the employees who thought of them bounce back with the relish to have even more. They can think about the power dynamics behind who gets listened to, and which ideas are progressed.”
Cooper adds: “in terms of its role as a general, motivational force, it is clear that curiosity has always been highly valued in the workplace. It drives our impulses to challenge what we ourselves are doing, to look at what our competitors are up to – and to make connections between seemingly disparate people or processes.
“In our technology-rich era, we are able to satisfy our curiosity more quickly and directly than ever before. So leaders don’t necessarily need to allocate hours of time for employees to explore and imagine. Staff can do the Googling and research required to firm up their ideas for minutes at a time at their desks. But most importantly, leaders should convey to their staff that curiosity should be an intrinsic part of the jobs that they are doing.”
For further thoughts on creativity, check out these learning resources from the Institute
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