Company Culture and Curiosity

A Closer Look at Distress Tolerance

Risk is a familiar topic in the business world. The evolution of reporting structures and shareholder accountability results in work environments where innovation and success are the expectation, but experimentation and risk are met with resistance. The result is a catch 22 in which ambitious, curious employees seek to push new ideas, but face obstacles in doing so.

Dr. Todd Kashdan, professor of Psychology at George Mason University in the United States, describes the trends that have converged to create our current reality. “In the modern business climate, certain trends ensure that distress and discomfort are the norm. Globalization. Demographic upheavals. Ubiquitous technology. We live in a world that is inherently volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous.”

The Risk in Avoiding Risk

This current reality in which we operate creates tremendous challenges for those looking to innovate. 

“Any aversion to risk in the workplace decreases the chance that creative potential transforms into creative accomplishments,” Dr. Kashdan argues. “There is a bias to maintain the status quo.”

“To break free from the pack one must be curious enough to listen to alternative ways of doing business and courageous enough to experiment with new ideas and strategies knowing that there is no guarantee of success,” Dr. Kashdan says. “Low distress tolerance means one plays the short game - thinking in fiscal quarters. High distress tolerance means one is able to play the long game - knowing that innovation often takes months and years to come to fruition; there are dozens of failures for every monumental success.”

  Todd Kashdan against a yellow background   Todd Kashdan against a yellow background

What the Data Shows

In our State of Curiosity Report, published in October 2016, we examined trends in curiosity, measured in four dimensions: inquisitiveness, openness to other ideas, creativity in problem solving, and distress tolerance, among workers in China, Germany, and the United States. The report found that while workers in all three countries have areas to improve when it comes to their practice of curiosity at work, distress tolerance is an area of weakness across all markets.

Dr. Kashdan underscores the importance of the report findings on distress tolerance, asserting that “being able to tolerate distress is an essential skill for navigating the shoals of everyday decision-making. The survey results suggest that these skills are lagging behind the skills required for completing specific job related tasks. I would argue that distress tolerance is a meta-skill that is more important than industry knowledge and skills. If you can tolerate distress, you can be open to the changes that cannot be predicted. You can stay the course or search for alternative paths as needed. Distress tolerance is the foundation for becoming an agile person in an agile organization.” 

The State of Curiosity Report found that average scores for the four dimensions of curiosity varied widely by country. Notably, when breaking down China’s overall Curiosity Index score by the four dimensions, employees in China scored markedly lowest on distress tolerance. 

Dr. Kunlin Wei, professor of psychology at Peking University in China, hypothesizes that Chinese culture factors significantly into the trends observed in the State of Curiosity Survey. 

“Chinese culture emphasizes collective values, and the society is also an authoritative one. In companies, perfect execution is encouraged, and human errors are not that tolerable as in the west,“ according to Dr. Wei. “The pressure for reducing uncertainty and minimizing errors is propagated from the top down. Thus, the employees exhibit significantly lower distress tolerance.“

Dr. Kashdan builds on this assertion, “In East Asian contexts, people are more likely to view themselves as interdependent — fundamentally connected to others and responsive to situational demands. Your sense of self can be deflated by social blunders made by another employee on your team, your family members, or your close friends... so it is not surprising that the ability to tolerate distress is lower in China.”

Noteworthy is the fact that while overall distress tolerance scores are low, more than half of workers with final decision-making authority in China have high distress tolerance scores. Those with decision-making authority possess greater power than their peers, which can result in a personal sense of control over their actions. 

Opportunities for Organizations

The good news is that distress tolerance is a teachable skill. According to Dr. Kashdan, “Employers can learn how to strategically empower employees with autonomy support such that fewer people are averse to risk and more people feel psychologically safe enough to act on their curiosity and explore, discover, and innovate.” 

Employees become more tolerant to distress when they are able “to care about other people, invest in other people, and collaborate with other people without being emotionally fused to the actions of other people outside of one’s control. We can help people become more curious by providing a safe-haven where their anxious feelings and thoughts are validated, understood, and cared for by another person,” Dr. Kashdan concludes. In other words, a workplace environment that provides a safe space for risk encourages curiosity in all employees.

Organizations can engage in the following strategies to prioritize distress tolerance:

  • Conduct an internal audit of the prejudices against anxiety and worry that exist within the organization.
  • Alter the cultural approach to errors, mistakes, and failures, acknowledging that these are part of attempting great, innovative work.
  • Be radically transparent: Share stories of great ideas that work and fail—by deconstructing these moments, employees and leaders avoid the trap of survivorship bias (when false assumptions are made because only successes are shared).

In the end, Kashdan argues, an organization must put its workplace culture “under the microscope to discover what it feels like to develop and share ideas that are new, uncertain, complex, and risky” in order to emphasize curiosity and innovation.

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