Guilty of Killing Curiosity?

What a great discussion question for the book club group: with what skill would you imbue all leaders for success and why? This was a thought-provoking topic. The playing field for answers is wide. (And there was the word imbue, which is one of this word geek’s favs.) My response? The ability to not destroy curiosity.

While many CEO’s say curiosity is a necessary leadership skill, my experience has been that most organizations work overtime, covertly and inadvertently, to stamp out curiosity. Here’s why I say that.

Leaders want efficiency.

Responding to the person who wants to know “why” and “have we thought about . . .” takes time. Time is a resource in chronically short supply. Leaders are rewarded for meeting deadlines, not for sponsoring curiosity, which means the curious person who wants knowledge beyond what they know generally gets a reputation as being a time-waster. “Don’t let Tom be on your team. He asks too many questions.”

Leaders want fast decision-making.

Time is money, and money means success. Which means that bosses have preferred methods for making decisions. Given time and performance pressures, however, those in charge aren’t interested in the curious person who wants to review the situation. Such a person considers whether an ad hoc or process-based approach is best, and if action or caution is most prudent. They propose whether information should be gathered narrowly or widely, if corporate interests or personal interests should prevail, or if the matter is one of continuity or change.

Leaders don’t want a troublemaker on their team.

Too often, those who are curious get labeled as rebels. Bosses want employees who go by the book, not ones who want to rewrite the book. Google “how should leaders handle a troublemaker." I got 1,150,000 results. Curious people sometimes violate social norms with their questions and non-conforming behavior, so they make co-workers who go by the book uncomfortable.

Leaders like conformity.

I call this the vending machine approach to leadership. Someone asks a boss a question (that’s inserting the coins), then out pops the correct answer (like the candy bar or bag of chips). The employee takes the offering without question or pushback. No fuss, no muss, and so efficient.  This may be why a Harris Poll found that 60% of respondents said their workplace throws up barriers to integrating curiosity into their work.

Leaders want to minimize uncertainty.

Novelty is intriguing to curious people. Novelty means the unknown, and dealing with the unknown sits outside the comfort zone of most people and organizations. “Stay in your lane” and “color within the lines” are common pieces of performance advice offered to those who want to try something new.

Leaders want people to get on board asap and be team players.

“Because of their preference for new information, curious people are less likely to prematurely commit to initial ideas and perspectives.” That’s not likely to endear them to many bosses. Bosses want employees to fit the mold, and curious ones don’t.

Is your company on an innovation kick and disappointed in the lack of ideas and creativity employees are generating? If so, which behaviors are being rewarded—fast, shallow, short-term decision-making; going by the book; fitting in?  Therein may lie your answer as to where all the curiosity and creativity went.

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