Evan Goodman

The Benefits of Curiosity for Leaders

Curiosity is an attribute that is critical for leaders to succeed in a disruptive world. Agile leaders are those who are highly motivated, have the drive to learn new things and explore. Curiosity is the precursor to these desirable attributes in leaders.

What does curiosity mean?

Curiosity is an element of cognition. An early definition of curiosity was given in 1899 by psychologist and philosopher William James, who stated curiosity is the impulse that drives our desire to seek and gain complete philosophical and scientific knowledge. According to another psychologist, humans use curiosity to achieve a balance between under stimulation (coping with mundane or complex tasks and situations) and overstimulation.

Curiosity reflects our motivation to seek challenges and novelty, explore, learn, and to extend our capacities. In short, we use curiosity to generate positive experiences.

Researchers have developed a five-dimensional model of curiosity where the dimensions are stress tolerance, joyous exploration, deprivation sensitivity, thrill-seeking, and social curiosity.

Leaders who have stress tolerance ability are able to step forward to explore by leveraging anxiety linked to novelty. Thrill-seeking is the willingness to court social, financial, and physical risks to gain intense, varied, and complex experiences. Socially curious leaders are adept at listening, talking, and observing others for learning. Joyous exploration deals with being consumed by a pleasurable state of wonder about the world’s fascinating features.

Deprivation sensitivity fills leaders with a relentless desire to fill gaps in their knowledge that offers them relief.

Studies conducted at workplaces across multiple countries indicate that these dimensions of curiosity catalyze new ideas. A majority of participants believed curiosity inspires valuable, unique talents and helps obtain promotions.

Benefits of curiosity for a business leader

Boosts intelligence: Psychologists believe curiosity enhances intelligence. A study in children showed that those who were highly curious had better intelligence test scores as compared to less curious ones. It boosts both physical and mental energy and perseverance. Students who were more curious not only enjoyed lectures more but achieved higher final grades.

Sparks innovation:  Curious leaders are those who discover new paths, open new doors, and carve their own path in the world. For curious leaders, exploration is as rewarding as the resulting discoveries they make.

Leaders who are open to new opinions and information can lead their organizations into new territory. Innovation is the top priority for companies looking to maximize their growth potential and derive new revenue streams. Relentless curiosity is the hallmark of top innovators, including Apple, Tesla, Google, and Amazon. The leaders and innovators in these companies constantly probe, encourage, and learn while thriving in a culture where ideas and opinions are readily shared and solicited. Innovation has been the key differentiator for these companies.

Research has revealed that curiosity can spark creativity at all levels. A study evaluated the curiosity of artisans who sold goods on an e-commerce website. The researchers also measured the creativity of these artisans in terms of the number of new items created over a two-week timeframe. They found that a one score increase in curiosity led to a 34 percent increase in creativity.

Other studies have shown that the most curious of employees seek the most information that helps them perform better.

By being curious and encouraging teams, they manage to be curious, and leaders can drive creativity and workplace innovation.

Improves decision-making: Curiosity is typically the first step in the process of decision making. It can help leaders consider wider options and different alternatives rather than relying on stereotypical assumptions and historical data to confirm their beliefs.

Curiosity stimulates many other processes involved in decision-making, including questioning, experimentation, skepticism, visualization, evaluation, imaginative thought, prediction, logical reasoning, inference, and identification of patterns. By sharpening observation skills, curiosity fine-tunes the leader’s ability to notice intricate details of the problem and possible solutions as well as information gathering skills.

Curiosity improves decision making by minimizing errors because leaders are keen on looking at and evaluating alternatives. Curious leaders are able to examine tough situations in a creative way while being less prone to defensive responses in times of stress. Curiosity is also the trait which enables leaders to view a situation or problem from others’ perspective.

Leaders who are curious are less likely to be subject to confirmation bias where they seek information that supports existing beliefs rather than looks for evidence that suggests they could be wrong. Such leaders avoid stereotyping people in terms of making broad judgments.

Mitigates group conflict: Research indicates curiosity empowers members in a group to take an interest in each other’s ideas and put themselves in the other person’s shoes instead of being obsessed with their own perspective. This enables leaders and team members to work together smoothly and efficiently while minimizing conflicts. Curious leaders are also more empathetic as they tend to ask and listen instead of reacting. This enables them to create the right atmosphere for a constructive discussion, which, in turn, fosters collaboration and impactful decision making.

Helps you learn better:  In leadership, curiosity and humility are often seen as weaknesses while the acknowledgment of gaps in knowledge is not something expected out of a manager, senior executive, or director. However, without the ability to ask relevant and powerful questions, there can be no new learning and no innovation. Value creation, adaptability, and problem-solving are negatively impacted when leaders do not ask the right questions to invite further exploration. Some of the most successful business leaders, such as Steve Jobs, are great learners and have a voracious appetite for knowledge.

Leaders whose curiosity is heightened perform better than those who prefer status-quo because they are able to share information openly and also listen more carefully. In the brain, the hippocampus is the area that regulates memory, learning, and focus apart from emotion and motivation. This area also is activated by curiosity. Studies show information seeking and recall are enhanced in people who are highly curious.

Research demonstrates that learning goals that include acquisition of skills, development of competence, and mastering situations boost motivation as opposed to performance goals of impressing others, hitting targets, or proving competence.

Learning goals also help leaders acquire diverse skills, perform better at work, and improve problem-solving skills.

Strengthens motivation: According to neuroscience, curiosity strengthens motivation. Extrinsic motivation and curiosity activate the same areas in the brain. Both of these are driven by the rewards process brought about by the neurotransmitter called dopamine. Dopamine is the chemical that makes you feel good when you get something you desire and drives your motivation to get or do more of the same. Leaders need a lot of energy to be able to motivate teams, and the more their curiosity, the more motivation they receive.

Curious leaders are growth-minded and strongly believe through hard work, they can develop their skills and competencies. Curiosity thus serves as a catalyst for growth.

In conclusion

Researchers believe curiosity is an evolved trait that allows species to acquire new knowledge to survive. Multiple studies confirm that curiosity motivates learning and acquisition of knowledge. Curious leaders are better performers, more empathetic, and are problem solvers, all of which are crucial traits required to navigate the complex landscape of market disruption.