When employees are encouraged to bring a sense of curiosity to work, they’re more likely to generate strong ideas, finds research.
One of the problems with traditional nine-to-five jobs and their structures, frameworks and sense of comfort is that they can sometimes stifle our curiosity, says international speaker, researcher and PhD candidate Yemi Penn.
Penn, who is speaking at AHRI’s National Convention and Exhibition next month, experienced this when she worked as an engineer on major transport infrastructure projects, including Crossrail in the UK and Sydney Metro in Australia. She knew she’d be paid each month.
She had job security and a good idea of what she’d be doing each day. That certainty, as well as the strict nature of the standards-driven engineering environment, made her a follower of rules. It removed the need for Penn to use her imagination or ignite her own curiosity.
“We learn to accept things because [that’s how] they’ve always been. This can lead to people feeling unfulfilled, frustrated and uninspired,” says Penn.“We learn to go through life without question, until something goes wrong. But even then at times, we still stay quiet for fear of retribution, eradicating creativity and collaboration.”
The business case for curiosity
Research on curiosity, published in the Harvard Business Review, says identity is a lynchpin of curiosity. If an organisation wants to leverage curiosity, it must make the workplace safe for people to bring their whole selves to work.
Identity can also reinforce curiosity, the research says. If an individual’s employer, mentor or manager constantly encourages curiosity, it is more likely to become a permanent part of that person’s identity.
For the employer, that’s a powerful trait. The report found that 73 per cent of curious individuals generate more new ideas.
We think more creatively when we’re curious, says Penn. We also develop relationships of deeper trust and collaboration. That’s good for the individual, for their team and for the organisation.
The HBR report outlines a critical insight into how many organisations view curiosity: “Although leaders might say they treasure inquisitive minds, in fact most stifle curiosity, fearing it will increase risk and inefficiency.”
In another survey of 23,000 people by INSEAD and Survey Monkey, including over 1500 executive managers, 83 per cent of those executives said they encouraged curiosity, but only 53 per cent of employees agreed.
This tells us that Penn isn’t alone in feeling as if she wasn’t fulfilling her creative potential in her engineering role.
So what can businesses do to encourage innovation without creating a perception of increased risk and inefficiency?
“We learn to accept things because [that’s how] they’ve always been. This leads to people feeling unfulfilled, frustrated and uninspired.” – Yemi Penn, upcoming AHRI Convention speaker.
Become a curious rebel
Penn is excited to be speaking at AHRI’s Convention and Exhibition because she will have a chance to help “transform the transformers” – HR.
In presenting her ideas on challenging one’s own way of thinking, the benefits are amplified, she says, because the HR professionals in the audience can go on and do the same within their workforces. However, it’s vital that they start with themselves, she says.
“The first thing they’ll need to look at is the things that most concern them in their jobs,” she says. “What makes you angry or sad? What do you avoid, and why?”
Identifying these challenging areas is just the beginning. What follows is work to help eliminate them.
“You’ve got to start unpacking [unhelpful] belief systems because, when you do, not only do you find the emotion, but you also find language you can use with other people.
“We can experience a non-serving belief in real-time when we are deeply uncomfortable. If this happens regularly, there’s potential for a repeating pattern. This is the time to get curious and ask questions as to why we are feeling this way without the need to blame anyone,” she says.
“It means we get radically honest with why we are responding to an event in a particular way. This acknowledgement is paramount to then doing the work of either holding on to that belief or creating a new one.”
The belief Penn refers to is the one that has been instilled by the business. For example, it might be saying that work should be done in a certain way, from a certain place, during a specific time. This thinking no longer aligns with the modern-day worker.
When Penn was a full-time engineer, then made the decision to start her own consultancy, she was originally filled with self-doubt, wondering if she had what it took to run her own business. It revealed a certain belief system that Penn had adopted during her time as an employed engineer – that she needed the structure and backing of a company in order to succeed.
When you recognise and dissect those self-beliefs, that’s when what she calls “rebellious curiosity” begins to develop. After all, if your self-beliefs were incorrect, what else about the status quo is holding you back?
Read HRM’s article on the 5 types of impostor syndrome.
“How can you be rebellious by challenging the status quo of how you feel?” Penn asks.
Just as things like toxic cultures, corporate misconduct or unproductive behaviours usually stem from something deeper, so too do limiting self-beliefs.
But imagine an organisation in which such self-beliefs do not exist. Where people are instead confident to be creative, to collaborate with other departments and to innovate.
When you challenge the status quo of how you feel, a new level of performance is achieved, says Penn.
Plus, outdated models of working cost time, money and productivity, all at the expense of engagement, she says. But smarter working environments create positive disruption and higher performance.
The power of liminal thinking
To help people embrace a more curious mindset, you need to engage in a process called ‘liminal thinking’, says Penn.
“The best way to explain it is ‘pushing beyond your threshold’,” she says. “Imagine you’re running a marathon. At three hours you reach your limit, but there are still 10 kilometres to go. Maybe your body takes over. You stretch your threshold and see there might be another truth. In knowing that, you start to think differently.”
When people are convinced of their real power, potential and talent, their engagement and performance is immediately boosted. They’re empowered in a simple but potent way, says Penn.
Sometimes this transformation is really simple. Often, an individual’s lack of recognition of their own power and influence comes less from the fact that it has been withheld from them and more from the fact that nobody has ever pointed it out.
“I was recently shown around the United Nations building by a friend who works there in HR,” says Penn. “Just hearing things he was saying, I thought, ‘You have a lot of influence and power. You are the person that the CEO and COO comes to. You have significant influence, but maybe you just don’t know it yet.’”
When people finally recognise their capability, it creates a powerful shift in potential. But the opposite is also true. When people aren’t empowered to be curious and don’t feel safe to use their imagination, their employer misses out on an enormous amount of that person’s potential.
A version of this article first appeared in the June 2023 edition of HRM Magazine.
Want to hear more from Yemi Penn on the power of curiosity at work and more? Sign up for AHRI’s National Convention and Exhibition from 8-10 August in Brisbane. This isn’t a conference to miss.