Why Curiosity is a Business Imperative

Most of us recognize why curiosity is important. Few of us know how to practice and unleash its full potential. But when leaders embrace curiosity, it becomes a catalyst for transformation, helping leaders challenge their assumptions, connect with people, and build cultures where everyone feels like they matter.

In this episode of the Creative Confidence Podcast, we speak with Scott Shigeoka, curiosity expert and author of the new book, SEEK: How Curiosity Can Transform Your Life and Change the World. Scott shares his stories and research about why curiosity is one of the most important skills for leaders today, plus tangible tips and activities that we can practice to build our curiosity muscles.

 

 

JUMP TO SECTION

What is Curiosity?

Why Curiosity is Important in Business

Examples of Curiosity in the Workplace

What Gets in the Way of Curiosity

How to Practice Curiosity

 

What is Curiosity?

Scott defines curiosity as the pursuit of knowing and a search to understand. While people often think about curiosity as an intellectual tool to learn more about something—searching on Wikipedia, listening to a podcast, reading a book—it’s also about moving from the head into the heart. Heart-centered curiosity is the desire to know someone as a force of connection. Scott says that curiosity is similar to the ocean. Like the ocean, curiosity is on a spectrum, and you have both a shallow end and a deep end.

The shallow end of curiosity is how we get to know someone in terms of high-level, shallow data points. For example, we might ask: What's your name? Where do you live? What do you do for work? What's your position there? Then as you move towards the deep end of the spectrum, you dive beneath the surface, start to see a person and all of their layers, and hear more stories. You start to understand their values and relationships, their positive and negative emotions.

Instead of “What's your name,” a deep curiosity question might be: What's the story of your name? Who named you? What's your relationship to those who named you? Do you like your name? What would you name yourself if you could? Instead of “What do you do for work,” a deep curiosity question might be: What's energizing you right now at work? What's the intention you're setting for yourself this year as you think about your professional journey? Who are the people in your life who have helped you get to where you are today?

Questions like these give you so much more detail about who a person is. At the same time, Scott emphasizes that shallow curiosity questions aren’t bad. You wouldn’t necessarily want to go up to someone for the very first time and ask, “What's the deepest childhood trauma you've experienced?” You have to start from a place of trust, and slowly work your way up from the shallow to the deep end.

 


“Curiosity is defined as the pursuit to understand. Oftentimes we view it as an intellectual tool, but what I also think about when I hear of curiosity is moving from the head to the heart.”
Scott Shigeoka—Fellow at UC Berkeley, Curiosity Expert, & Author of SEEK


 

 

Why Curiosity is Important in Business

Research shows that curiosity helps you to live longer, reduce feelings of anxiety and depression, and strengthen relationships, which are all incredibly important in and out of work. But in the work context specifically, curiosity is important because when leaders have curiosity they understand there are constraints to their knowledge, they listen more, and they’re more liked and seen as more competent.

A common fear people have is that others will think they don't know what they’re doing if they ask a lot of questions. However, Scott says that the research shows it’s the opposite. People don’t want to work with someone who seems like they always have all the answers and leads them down dead ends.

In Scott’s experience surveying and interviewing leaders across every industry, the best leaders have a fundamental muscle of curiosity. Curiosity allows people to feel seen, heard, and valued. Additionally, more curious cultures in work tend to have lower turnover rates, more engaged workers, and less absenteeism. People want to show up when their workplace is curious about them and cares about their contributions.

 

Examples of Curiosity in the Workplace

When Scott was conducting interviews at Pixar, he learned about their practice when they're ready to do a film review they don't just invite animators and writers—they invite everyone into the room. People in HR, accounting, and talent get to be a part of the review process because they might see things that the core team might not see. Similarly, instead of only having executives or the board in the room to solve problems, it’s valuable to invite others for ideas and feedback.

Scott also gives an example from his interviews, where someone said they were in a team meeting and asking questions, but developed a narrative in their head that they were talking too much and decided to stop. Afterward, their manager reached out and said, “Hey, I just saw that you were asking all these great questions and then you quieted down, is everything okay? I just wanted to check up on you.” By doing that, the manager expressed their curiosity and care. That person felt so valued and appreciated, and learned that it was okay to be curious and be themselves.

 


Learn more about using curiosity to tackle complex problems in your team and organization in our course Creative Thinking for Complex Problem Solving.


 

What Gets in the Way of Curiosity

One thing that gets in the way of curiosity is judgment—feeling like our point of view is more important or being overly certain about something. We see this a lot in the political arena as well as in interpersonal relationships. If we are coming from a place of judgment or want our points of view to be heard, it’s hard to access curiosity.

Another obstacle to curiosity is fear. Sometimes we're afraid that if we start getting curious, we don’t know what’s going to happen in that conversation and might hear something that we don’t want to hear. However, it’s still important to be curious because oftentimes, we're operating from a place of assumptions. And sometimes curiosity takes us to hearing things we don't want to hear, but are important for us to move forward.

Scott also explains there are limits and boundaries to curiosity. Just going out and asking all the questions you want might be invasive or harmful. While you might be curious about someone's culture, or whether they're pregnant or not, you're not necessarily entitled to that information just because you're curious. People have privacy and boundaries, and that should be respected. Scott says it’s good to remember that curiosity is earned, not deserved. In other words, you have to create trust and the relationship to allow for curiosity to take place and don't expect it everywhere you go.

On the other side of that, Scott encourages people to be courageous—to go to the deep end of curiosity and not just stick to the shallow side. In his book, he writes about the importance of self-compassion and grace. Sometimes we might say something that was not the right question to ask at that moment. Scott says to be kind to yourself and recognize your humanity. And in reverse, if someone asks you a question that you feel goes across the boundary, you can extend grace to them and say, “Hey, their intent is probably coming from a good place. The impact of that was hard for me. But I just want to extend grace to them and know that we're humans and make mistakes. And so I'm going to continue with this conversation and this relationship.”

 


“The best leaders have a fundamental muscle of curiosity, something we practice every day in our work.”
Scott Shigeoka—Fellow at UC Berkeley, Curiosity Expert, & Author of SEEK


 

 

How to Practice Curiosity

According to Scott, we’re all born with curiosity, and you can see it at work through different development stages. Research shows that infants look at novel stimuli for much longer than known ones. They start babbling because they're getting curious about their vocal anatomy and learn that when they say certain things, they can get responses from the adults around them. It’s a learning mechanism, and in this way, curiosity is important for learning and growth. At the same time, Scott says that while we all have curiosity, it’s a muscle and requires practice like any other muscle that you don't want to atrophy. Curiosity is something that we need to consistently exercise in small ways.

Scott gives an example of one curiosity activity that you can do at home or work. He says that just as people give vows at a wedding, you can make a vow to yourself before any big transition. It could be before you’re transitioning to a new job or moving to a new place. These are the big milestone moments in our lives when we want to get self-curious and understand how we are going to show up for ourselves. For example, who are the people you want to surround yourself with, and who can serve as a board of advisors as you make decisions? When things get hectic and anxious, who will you talk to? Oftentimes, we don't take the space to reflect and get self-curious in this way.

Scott emphasizes that it’s important not to practice predatory curiosity, which is leading open-ended questions in a conversation with an ulterior motive or agenda. Sometimes, leaders ask questions to try to get an organization or a team in a particular direction. But real curiosity is when you don’t know where a conversation is going to go, and when you’re open-hearted and creating a space for exploration and discovery.

He also warns against supervisory gaslighting, where when you say something like, “Oh my gosh, I didn’t do a great job in that meeting,” a manager says, “No, you did great.” While it may feel good at the moment, it’s actually saying, “You are wrong.” It can close the connection and stampede over others’ feelings. Instead, Scott recommends that managers say something like, “I want to understand from your perspective. Why do you feel that way? Tell me more.” That opens the door for them to share a bit more about their perspectives, and reflection in that way is helpful for growth.

 


 

About the Speaker

Scott Shigeoka
Fellow at UC Berkeley, Curiosity Expert, & Author of SEEK

Scott Shigeoka is an internationally recognized curiosity expert, speaker, and the author of SEEK: How Curiosity Can Transform Your Life and Change the World. He is known for translating research into strategies that promote positive well-being and connected relationships around the globe, including at the UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and through his groundbreaking courses at the University of Texas at Austin. Scott implements his curiosity practices in the public sector, Fortune 500 companies, Hollywood, media organizations, education institutions, and small businesses.

 


If you want to learn more about how to use curiosity to tackle complex problems, check out our course Creative Thinking for Complex Problem Solving.


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