Distress tolerance as a barrier to curiosity
It is natural to feel distressed when confronted with the new, complex, or unfamiliar, particularly at a time when the World Health Organization calls stress the “global health epidemic of the 21st Century.”
However, our research found that the ability to cope with that distress is crucial to how curious employees are in their workplace – and, in turn, how successful the business is at innovating.
We saw that, no matter how creative in problem solving, open to new ideas, or inquisitive one may be, it can be difficult or even impossible to ever fully express curiosity without a significant level of tolerance for distress.
One of our research partners, Dr. Todd Kashdan Ph.D., a professor and senior scientist at George Mason University, explains, “Distress tolerance tends to determine whether that person will act on his or her curiosity in a meaningful way, or instead become discouraged and move on.”
So, when a person scores high in three curiosity dimensions (inquisitiveness, creativity in problem solving, and openness to new ideas), but low in distress tolerance, they may appear less curious, overall, than someone with a high tolerance for distress. Distress tolerance is the requirement to activate other dimensions of curiosity, moving from initial piqued interest to an active practice of curiosity.
And to be curious has benefits not only for the individual employee, but for the business. Curiosity is the most effective strategy for coping with stress in the workplace, according to Andreas Steinle, Managing Director of Zukunftsinstitut Workshop GmbH. “It gives you the strength and aplomb to handle the unexpected. The curious mind is not afraid of uncertain pathways, but wants to find out what’s beyond the next turn. For companies, this strength is essential for survival in turbulent times.” When asked for an example of how this looks in practice, Steinle cites innovation company, 3M, “At 3M you see how curiosity very strongly characterizes company culture and has impacted the bottom line. On a regular basis, employees show their extraordinary hobbies at an event called ‘marketplace of passion’. The coworkers learn what really drives a person and which unknown talents and traits could be used for projects at work.”
The distress tolerance problem
Our survey of employees in Germany, China, and the United States revealed distress tolerance as the weakest dimension in all three countries. Interestingly, while employees score low on distress tolerance, they scored their employer high on distress tolerance. This suggests that some employees may find it difficult to tolerate distress in the workplace despite suggesting their employers score high on distress tolerance.
For more examples of distress tolerance and other dimensions of curiosity in the workplace, explore the State of Curiosity Report.
Work environments that foster distress tolerance
While distress tolerance is low among employees across countries and sectors, it is a trait that can be easily influenced – employees can grow to be less fearful of taking risks and feel more courage to persevere through challenging times. With some further analysis, we saw trends in how the level of distress tolerance among employees varies depending on their work environment.
For example, our research found that when a workplace encourages recognizing, seeking out, and preferring things that are new, unusual, and outside one’s normal experience, the employee’s distress tolerance naturally increases.
Furthermore, when employees answered that their organizations would punish, rather than reward them for pursuing new or uncertain ideas, they had a lower distress tolerance.
These findings illustrate that distress tolerance is not a trait that some people innately have and others do not. Rather, it is malleable and has the potential to improve with not only employee-driven changes, but also through employer-led support and modifications to the work environment.