Over the past two years, I led a team (David Disabato, Fallon Goodman, Patrick McKnight, Carl Naughton, Andreas Steinle, Sophie von Stumm) to synthesize research on curiosity, including work on how this psychological strength operates in the workplace. From conceptual thinking and empirical research, we discovered that curiosity is best understood in a hierarchical framework (no different than any other personality trait). At the upper level, there is a broad dimension from being incurious to curious. But underneath, there are four separate – but related – lower-order dimensions. Most conversations about curiosity begin and end at the notion that people possess a certain level of curiosity. This is how curiosity has been discussed by scientists, journalists, authors, public speakers, business consultants, and employees and leaders in various work environments. Based on research that has never been shared until now, we offer a more nuanced, pragmatic approach.
Mapping onto a rich body of social science theory and research, here are the four lower-level curiosity dimensions that together are the basis of our Multidimensional Work-Related Curiosity Scale. Joyous Exploration is the dictionary definition and archetype of curiosity, reflecting the pleasure of recognizing and seeking out new information and experiences at work, and the subsequent joy of learning and growing. Deprivation Sensitivity has a distinct emotional flavor, reflecting the unpleasant state of uncertainty that persists until a gap between what one knows and wants to know is closed or resolved. Stress Tolerance reflects the willingness to embrace the doubt, confusion, anxiety, and other forms of distress that arise from exploring new and uncertain terrain at work. Openness to People’s Ideas reflects the valuing of diverse perspectives and intentionally seeking out different approaches that deviation from the status quo at work. Each of these four dimensions enable the psychological benefits of experiencing intrigue and taking the steps to explore, discover, learn, and grow. The beauty of a multidimensional framework is that we are now able to capture the particular ways that people become and/or express their curiosity. Instead of being limited to the question of whether someone is curious, we can initiate a promising set of questions that begin with asking how someone is curious.
Some of the trends that are disrupting traditional organizations include:
- demographic upheavals, with a greater range of surface-level (such as age, sex, and race) and deep-level (such as perspectives, abilities, and skills) diversity than prior generations,
- the rapid pace of technological shifts and their integration, and
- fierce global competition where the workplace extends to customers and colleagues in multiple countries.
Organizations need people that have more than intellect and grit. Curiosity is a valuable commodity in a fast-paced world. The ability to ask better questions, be open rather than resistant to change, and be equipped to manage the uncertainty, doubt, and anxiety that arises from exploring unfamiliar, uncertain terrain.
The most successful organizations are those that not only survive, but also thrive during uncertain, rapidly evolving times. Successful organizations are characterized by cultures of continuous learning and exploration. If actively encouraged and nurtured throughout an organization, curiosity can accelerate idea generation and enable organizations to address global challenges and change with efficiency and precision. Different curiosity profiles offer the promise of cognitive diversity, which happens to be the type of diversity that leads groups to be greater than the sum of the parts. In an organization, everyone aspires to design and be part of groups that offer added value beyond the capabilities of individuals working alone. Our new curiosity framework and measurement approach offers tantalizing opportunities to establish environments that enhance organizational behavior, culture, leadership, performance, and innovation.
Todd B. Kashdan, Ph.D.
Professor, Department of Psychology
Director, The Well-Being Lab
Senior Scientist, Center for the Advancement of Well-Being
George Mason University