Curiosity Is Our Superpower

Curiosity can be defined as the intrinsic motivation to learn, and research has found that curiosity improves learning and memory. In fact, Spencer Harrison, associate professor of organizational behavior at INSEAD, refers to curiosity as our superpower. Research he conducted with Jon Cohen, chief research officer at SurveyMonkey, found that:

    • Curiosity is a core building block for professional growth.
    • Curious people have difficult conversations when things aren’t going well.
    • Human curiosity gives us an edge over machines.

Effective Leaders Recognize the Power of Curiosity

In a highly volatile environment, where many of our machine-based predictive algorithms are failing, what are the core skills that organizations want for their leaders and staff?

Curiosity is one of them.

Business and learning leaders are increasingly realizing the value of curious leaders and employees. As a result, they are taking focused actions to build a culture that nurtures curiosity.

Many of us have heard that children have significantly higher levels of curiosity than adults. As we grow older, the environment diminishes our curious spirit. In an interview with Knowledge@Wharton, astrophysicist Mario Livio, author of “Why?: What Makes Us Curious,” clarifies this pervasive misconception:

“Kids are more curious in terms of diversity than perceptual curiosity. But I think in terms of epistemic [intellectual] curiosity, adults are as curious. This probably all started for survival. We needed to understand very well our environment in order to be able to survive, so there was an evolutionary pressure to this.”

Vas Narasimhan, chief executive officer of Novartis, chose “inspired,” “unbossed” and “curious” as themes for culture change at the organization. In an interview, he said that in a company like Novartis, that had a much stronger “learned” mindset, it was important to focus on a “learning” mindset. To that end, Simon Brown, chief learning officer (CLO) at Novartis and co-author of the book “The Curious Advantage,” spearheaded a journey to “unleash the power of people” by nurturing curiosity at Novartis.

The Role of Learning Organizations in Nurturing Curiosity

Recently, I interviewed many learning leaders, representing large, successful organizations. Through those conversations, I gleaned two best practices for nurturing curiosity:

1. Democratize Learning

I had first come across this phrase in 2016 during a conversation with Tim Munden, CLO at Unilever. It was around the time when Unilever introduced an artificial intelligence (AI)-driven learning marketplace.

Traditional learning environments are constrained by budgets, accessibility and bureaucratic processes, such as manager-approved nominations to learning programs. Unilever envisioned an open and democratized learning environment where its more than 150,000 employees could engage in any learning program that caught their interest.

In a more recent example, Celia Berenguer, CLO of Sanofi, launched Sanofi University this March amid a growing pandemic. As part of that initiative, Paul Hudson, the chief executive officer, encouraged employees to collectively complete 100,000 hours of learning between March and June. Reflecting on this learning campaign, encouraged by the CEO, Celia said that most employees started with courses that were more immediately relevant to their job roles. However, with time, they became more curious, leading them to access learning outside of their immediate context and broadening their horizons.

The first step learning organizations can take to encourage curiosity is to make available these democratized, rich learning environments that leverage technology to personalize and recommend learning based on an individual’s needs and goals.

2. Give Employees Permission to Learn

Many learning leaders are frustrated with the low uptake of learning resources.

Harrison and Cohen’s research found that 83% of C-level or president-level executives say that their organization encourages curiosity “a great deal” or “a good amount,” while just 52% of individual contributors say the same.

This research suggests that employees feel that it is not acceptable to spend time learning while at work, unless it’s a compliance-related or other mandated course. They feel self-conscious about spending time in learning that is not directly connected with their current role.

Creating an acceptance of learning during work hours is another step that learning organizations can take to encourage and foster curiosity, and there are many ways to do so. For example, Pamay Bassey, CLO of Kraft Heinz, took the approach of a “lone nut leader” when she kicked off a learning campaign by becoming a role model and sharing her learning every day over one year.

“The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing,” as Albert Einstein said. As history gives us a chance to reset the way we’ve been functioning, why not bring back the overlooked but ever-important curiosity?