Business is Bad at Curiosity

Managers say they want creativity, but they don't like creatives.

I read a piece by Sunny Bonnell and Ashleigh Hansberger — Why your most punished traits are actually your greatest assets — which might be better titled The Rare Breed:

Organizations that consistently display fearless creativity and set the pace in their industry typically have leaders who don’t play well with others. They’re obsessive, oppositional, audacious, and socially maladroit. However, they’re also wired to see beyond the limitations of the present, challenge conventional wisdom, and break what should be broken. For all their quirks and sharp elbows, they approach problems and solutions with blinding originality.

Bonnell and Hansberger call these people ‘the rare breed’, and they share these traits:

Rare Breeds are people whose defining traits parents, teachers, mentors, and bosses have long derided as vices. Instead, we reframe them as virtues, and in our book, Rare Breed: A Guide to Success for the Defiant, Dangerous, and Different, we identify seven of them:

Rebellious. People with zero tolerance for what doesn’t work, who push against authority, precedent, and the word of experts to see how hard they push back.

Audacious. Brimming over with hubris and the sense that they have capabilities others lack, they’ll gleefully dare the impossible, especially if you tell them it’s impossible.

Obsessed. They’re the ones who work 72 hours without sleep, scribble equations on the walls of the shower, agonize over punctuation… and create greatness.

Hot-Blooded. People with passions that run so deep nothing else matters. They’re activists, champions, avengers, and people you don’t want to cross.

Weird. Nerds. Geeks. Habitués of maker fairs, comic cons, and silent film festivals. They see the world from odd angles and through strange filters and are often brilliant.

Hypnotic. People with disconcerting levels of charisma, who find it easy to sway and spellbind others up to—and sometimes, beyond—the point of manipulation.

Emotional. Wearing their hearts on their sleeves, these are the empaths, the ones who weep at everyone’s pain but also find joy in the small things.

There’s a great deal of hyperbole here: this was pulled from a ‘management book’ about successful misfits, after all. But while I agree with much of their characterization of wild-eyed iconoclasts, I was mostly struck by what was missing: curiosity. But I bet it’s implied.

I buy into the theory that curious people should be sought out and supported because many leaders reject the curious, and the ways of curious people. Francesca Gino offers these damning insights in The Business Case for Curiosity:

Two tendencies restrain leaders from encouraging curiosity:

They have the wrong mindset about exploration.

Leaders often think that letting employees follow their curiosity will lead to a costly mess. In a recent survey I conducted of 520 chief learning officers and chief talent development officers, I found that they often shy away from encouraging curiosity because they believe the company would be harder to manage if people were allowed to explore their own interests. They also believe that disagreements would arise and making and executing decisions would slow down, raising the cost of doing business. Research finds that although people list creativity as a goal, they frequently reject creative ideas when actually presented with them. That’s understandable: Exploration often involves questioning the status quo and doesn’t always produce useful information. But it also means not settling for the first possible solution—and so it often yields better remedies.

They seek efficiency to the detriment of exploration.

In the early 1900s Henry Ford focused all his efforts on one goal: reducing production costs to create a car for the masses. By 1908 he had realized that vision with the introduction of the Model T. Demand grew so high that by 1921 the company was producing 56% of all passenger cars in the United States—a remarkable success made possible primarily by the firm’s efficiency-centered model of work. But in the late 1920s, as the U.S. economy rose to new heights, consumers started wanting greater variety in their cars. While Ford remained fixated on improving the Model T, competitors such as General Motors started producing an array of models and soon captured the main share of the market. Owing to its single-minded focus on efficiency, Ford stopped experimenting and innovating and fell behind.

These leadership tendencies help explain why our curiosity usually declines the longer we’re in a job. In one survey, I asked about 250 people who had recently started working for various companies a series of questions designed to measure curiosity; six months later I administered a follow-up survey. Although initial levels of curiosity varied, after six months everyone’s curiosity had dropped, with the average decline exceeding 20%, because people were under pressure to complete their work quickly, they had little time to ask questions about broad processes or overall goals.

Share work futures

The model of curiosity that Todd Kashdan, Paul Rose, and Frank Fincham proposed (that I wrote about in Work skills for the future: Curiosity) reads like a prescription for what management should do to counter Gino’s negatives:

Todd Kashdan, Paul Rose, and Frank Fincham developed a model of curiosity and determined that three factors correlate with curiosity, which read like guidelines for a company to create more curious staff:

  • Autonomy — Curiosity increases in the context of encouragement, information, and choice. Threats, punishment, surveillance, and negative feedback all decrease curiosity.

  • Competence — Curiosity is enhanced when events lead people to believe they can interact effectively with the environment, or when events give them the desire to do so. Sincere praise also affects curiosity postitively.

  • Relatedness — Feeling connected to others and believing your emotional experiences are acknowledged increases curiosity in work, athletic, and academic environments. Feeling safe and comfortable also has a positive impact.

So, create an environment that tolerates misfits, rewards actual creative behaviors, and embraces people following their own interests. Companies that don’t will suffer the fate of Ford, IBM, and the other former giants that focused on short-term efficiency at the cost of long-term innovation.