Are Your Employees Languishing? Try Piquing Their Curiosity

Children show boundless curiosity, constantly seeking answers to all kinds of questions by asking, “Why? Why? Why?”

But our impulse to ask curious questions disappears as we grow older, says Harvard Business School Professor Francesca Gino, “either because we feel the pressure to just execute in our jobs, or because we don’t want to be judged or come across as silly for not knowing.”

When a large Canadian bank a few years ago asked Gino and her colleagues to probe the personality traits most helpful in spurring collaboration, their own curiosity got the better of them. In addition to psychology’s big five personality traits (extraversion, agreeableness, openness, conscientiousness, and neuroticism), the research team set out to study the importance of a sixth trait: curiosity. Specifically, they wanted to see whether piqued curiosity spurred people to network more with others outside their immediate work groups.

“When we received the results, none of the big five were particularly important. The one that stood out was curiosity,” recalls Gino.

“I keep coming back to curiosity as an engine that can unlock a lot of the problems we see in society.”

Since then, Gino and her fellow researchers have dug into how a curious mindset can help employees perform better, reduce stress and burnout, and forge meaningful connections at work. Their forthcoming research, “The Effects of Piqued Curiosity on Boundary-Spanning Networking in Organizations,” indicates that curiosity helps expand colleagues’ networks and that organizations can consciously cultivate it. Gino coauthored the paper with Tiziana Casciaro, Bill McEvily, and Evelyn Zhang of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto.

At a time when companies are struggling to re-engage an exhausted workforce and retain workers in a tight job market, managers can tap into curiosity to help boost employee happiness and jumpstart innovation, says Gino, who is the Tandon Professor of Business Administration at HBS.

“I keep coming back to curiosity as an engine that can unlock a lot of the problems we see in society,” she says. “It’s just this beautiful posture that we can all take more often to help re-energize ourselves and reduce stress and divisiveness.”

Networking can be awkward

Many organizations try to get employees to mix within and across groups, hoping new insights will emerge, but social anxiety hampers some people from stretching themselves, and the very idea of networking for personal or corporate gain is uncomfortable for others. Productivity goals can also get in the way of workers following an intriguing idea, and employees worry they risk being criticized if they pursue novel ideas on the clock.

Plus, many workers shy away from asking probing questions at work. In a survey that Gino conducted in 2018 of about 3,000 employees in various industries, she found that only 24 percent said they felt curious at work on a regular basis, and 70 percent said they faced barriers in asking more questions in the workplace.

Curiosity broadens networks

To study curiosity’s effect on networking, Gino and her colleagues conducted three experiments. In the first one, they split 2,200 financial managers into three groups: curiosity, placebo, and control. They emailed the curiosity group this request: “What is one topic or activity you are curious about today? What is one thing you usually take for granted that you want to ask about? Please make sure you ask a few Why’s? as you engage in your work throughout the day. Please set aside a few minutes to identify how you’ll approach your work today with these questions in mind.”

“Their networks became much more diverse just because their curiosity was triggered.”

Other managers got an email designed to trigger reflection on their typical day, and some got no email at all. After three weeks, the researchers analyzed the pattern of emails sent by each manager, and found that after receiving the curiosity piquing missives, employees were more likely to send messages to people outside their immediate departments and to people in the company they’d never contacted before. The “network churn”—how much a person’s circle of colleagues grows—increased by 19 percentage points in response to an additional “curiosity” email, compared to 14 percentage points for executives in the control group.

“Their networks became much more diverse just because their curiosity was triggered,” Gino says.

Little nudges with big impact

In a second study, the research team applied the same approach to about 300 adults in a variety of industries, but used text messages instead of email. When asked about their networking afterward, respondents reported reaching out to more new contacts when their curiosity was piqued—on average 7.3 new contacts over a month compared to 4.

And in a third study, the researchers recruited nearly 300 people online and asked more detailed questions about how they responded to receiving the curiosity-piquing messages, rating their responses on a 7-point scale. Compared to people who didn’t get the messages, those who received them reported feeling more curious (5.9 to 4.8), more interested in connecting with colleagues (5.1 to 4.7), more interested in learning about their work through other sources (5.3 to 5), and more interested in networking with colleagues (4.1 to 3.5).

In just a short amount of time, Gino concludes, little nudges to pique curiosity can have a substantial effect on employees’ excitement about reaching out to others. Instead of feeling obligated to network to achieve a specific purpose, she says, participants seemed genuinely more interested in reaching out to learn what others could teach—a posture that makes them more likely to make connections, and to become more engaged in their own work.

How managers can put curiosity to work

Gino recommends that managers formally work curiosity into learning goals as part of employee performance. “I would recommend allowing people to pick what they are truly interested in,” she says.

For one employee, it might be learning more about what colleagues do in sales. For another, it might be exploring how developments in tech might disrupt the industry. The specific topics, she says, are less important than the fact that employees are asking the questions.

“We all have this capacity for curiosity, but we don’t exercise it, and so the muscle goes into atrophy. The very fact that people are exercising that muscle and bringing that power of thinking and exploring and broadening interest into their work is good for them,” Gino says.

“Curiosity causes us to ask and engage and talk across differences, so we can work to leverage our unique perspectives.”

Another way to spur curiosity, she suggests, is through managers modeling it themselves. “As leaders, there is so much power in being the first one to say, ‘Why are we doing this? Is there another way?’” she says, “because it inspires others to see that it’s OK to ask questions themselves, and that there might be multiple ways to tackle a project.”

In studies she is currently conducting, Gino is starting to find that curiosity can reduce stress and burnout by reframing conflict as opportunities to learn—another useful application for COVID-weary workers.

“Rather than make us sit in judgment, curiosity causes us to ask and engage and talk across differences, so we can work to leverage our unique perspectives,” she says. “Even the way we experience stress and anxiety becomes different—rather than being something paralyzing, they become something that re-energizes us and motivates us.”


Leave a Reply