Are We Killing Curiosity?


“We stare at the stars, we peer through microscopes, we climb mountains and we dive to the ocean floor. This behaviour, so natural to humans, is incomprehensible to human organisations.”

Venkatesh Rao

Being curious is an emotion driven by pleasure, pain, or the fear of the unknown. But is there a difference between how individuals and organisations perceive it?

Let’s look at an example.

On a personal level, why would anyone want to climb Mount Everest? The simple answer is because ‘it’s there’. It’s a fear of the unknown and the pure volatility of it that leaves people in awe of it. Sure we could die, but that excites many of us, knowing that if we overcome that adversity the rewards are exceptional. It’s about the joy of discovery. A sense of marvel and wonder.

To corporations, Everest’s volatility and fear of the unknown are something to be predicted, tested for and reacted against. Organisations are inherently driven by pain avoidance and fear of the unknown. Thus, we have an interesting dichotomy of the concept of curiosity on both a personal and professional level.

Would it be fair to say that organisational curiosity is ‘stamped out’ because it is deemed too risky?

Could it be argued that the passion for the unknown has been removed from corporate life?

Let’s look at our personal example again. By climbing Mt. Everest (successfully!), an individual can realise a personal potential, which in turn opens up possibilities for them in the future. They may be invited to speak at conferences, give seminars or write a book. Their curiosity has allowed them to develop a personal potential from their endeavours from which they benefit.

Now let’s relate that to an organisational context. If we’re allowed to be curious about problem-solving and importantly, given the permission by our organisations to do so, surely it will allow us to reach a level of professional potential? This in turn will create a corporate possibility, which in turn provides a competitive advantage.

Surely every organisation seeks competitive advantage?

Thus, are we creating the right environment for our people to be curious about the way they do things in a working context?

Creating a Curious Culture – Remove agendas and give permission

‘Agendas’ within an organisation plays a critical role in determining how curious the people within it can be, whether it’s seen as being a positive trait or a saboteur type of activity. Curiosity can be diminished by sanitised processes and institutionalised thinking – for it to flourish, curiosity must be allowed and encouraged beyond the organisational agenda.

This is why safety to communicate is a critical part of enabling curiosity. When it’s not safe to communicate, curiosity is killed and creativity is smashed. In organisations where ego and status override communication, curiosity simply breaks down.

Being curious starts at the top. It starts at the mindset and the psyche and ethos that the organisation adopts. That then trickles down to the microcosm of day-to-day people interactions, allowing people to do volatile work in non-volatile spaces.  Employees know that their superiors in the organisation will back them up and will be their safety net, not the cattle prod that drives them forward.

If this is a culture that an organisation is capable of fostering and creating, curiosity and the innovation that goes with it will naturally emerge. Curiosity is about failing just as it’s about success – that scares organisations the most.

But importantly it’s about discovery. You never know what you’ll find and the best thing, you never know if you’re actually going to like what you find, even if you do find what you wanted.

The outcome might surprise everybody in the process, but it’s important for people to understand that they have a safe place to do this in.