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How (and why) to train your brain to be more curious at work

Being curious can be an enormous asset, especially in the workplace.

How (and why) to train your brain to be more curious at work
[Photo: NeONBRAND/Unsplash]

Being curious about curiosity is not unlike having an episode of semantic satiation—that experience when you use or repeat a familiar word or phrase and it sounds “wrong” or has momentarily lost its meaning. At first, the concept of curiosity seems straightforward. But start asking questions about what it is and how to cultivate it, especially in the workplace, and it’s not as cut-and-dried.

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It seems obvious that curiosity in the workplace is a good thing. After all, when people are interested in learning and asking questions, they may figure out better ways of doing things, come up with new products, or find solutions to problems. But some of the assumptions we commonly make about what sparks our desire to learn things might not be exactly right. Rethinking some of them and embracing some curiosity-related habits may help us develop this valuable attribute. Here are some steps that might help:

Work in your curiosity zone

“Rather than thinking about [curiosity] in terms of individual variation across people, you could also think of it as the variation that exists within individuals, moment to moment,” says Celeste Kidd, assistant professor of psychology at the UC Berkeley, who studies curiosity, attention, cognitive development, and other areas. And those variations may depend on your interest in and knowledge of the subject, she says. There may be variations within individuals. Some may be curious about a wide range of topics. Others may have a smaller range of interests that pique their curiosity but delve into them deeper. Your understanding of the subject may also affect curiosity, she says.

“One known important predictor is uncertainty. You are not curious about things that you know nothing about,” she says. For example, you’re not likely to pick up a book in a language you don’t understand because you’re not going to be able to read it. Conversely, when you are entirely certain about a particular topic—when you’re certain you know all there is to know about it—that’s also a curiosity killer, she says.

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So, you may be most curious about subjects that fall into a “middle ground” in your knowledge; those about which you have some knowledge, but don’t have a high degree of certainty. The findings of a recent study by researchers at Rutgers University-Newark found this in preschool children. The study found that children wanted more information when they knew “just enough about it to find it interesting, but not too much that it becomes boring,” according to a summary in Science Daily.

Manage uncertainty

At the same time, your brain loves certainty, adds Michael Bungay Stanier, founder of learning and development company Box of Crayons and author of The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More, and Change the Way You Lead Forever. “Our brain, for evolutionary reasons, has gone, ‘Look, the more certainty I have, the better the odds of survival.'” So, it may be more difficult to maintain curiosity during times of stress or upheaval like, say, a pandemic. If you have uncertainty swirling around you, he advises moving into a self-management approach with two key questions:

  • What can I control or influence?
  • What can I not control or influence?

“The key insight from that model is we can control far less than we think. And we influence far more than we realize,” Stanier says. Realizing the difference may be the difference between throwing up your hands in frustration and giving up because you don’t have control and being able to release what you can’t change anyway. Once you stop trying to manage what you can’t change, you can let go of the anxiety that you should be doing something. That gives you more room for curiosity.

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Surround yourself with curious people

In some cases, you may be more curious in a group, especially when you’re facing a collective problem or shared interest, than when you’re alone, says Spencer Harrison, associate professor of organizational behavior at INSEAD. In his research, Harrison has found that people are more likely to be curious when they have a close or supportive relationship with people curious about the same thing. “It’s actually more often the case in organizations that people are curious together than they’re curious alone. And they’re curious because they’ve run into some sort of a puzzle or some sort of question that opens up space for new ways of thinking, and they want to explore that opportunity together,” he says.

Embrace a collaborative approach

Harrison has also found this in his work studying people in creative fields that curiosity can be contagious under the right conditions. “With dancers, what always struck me is they would watch each other dance and when somebody made a mistake, it wasn’t, ‘No, that’s not the right way to do it,'” he says. Instead, they coached each other. “It was, ‘Oh, that was interesting. What would happen if we all did that, and then they would take a moment to play with it,'” he says. The experimentation often gave them a broader set of possibilities from which to draw.

Avoid the “advice trap”

Sometimes, when you’re in the midst of asking questions to satisfy your curiosity and learn more, you may find yourself tempted to give advice rather than listen. Stanier calls this the “advice trap.” For example, let’s say you’re trying to be more curious about your team members to learn more about what they need to perform better. The key to doing so is asking the right questions. (Stanier lists seven key questions in his book.)

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As you engage with team members, they may ask questions that tempt you to give advice rather than find out why they’re asking. “Instead of giving my answers, which I’ve done for the last two years, I will ask a question, ‘Hey, what’s the real challenge here for you? Well, what’s on your mind?’,” he explains.

Stick with it

You can become more curious over time if you try, Kidd says. Forcing yourself to learn about something and stick with it “means that you will naturally become interested in other things that are related to the things that you already know, understanding that there’s a relationship between what you currently know and what you could know,” she says. As you make a habit of exploring new subjects, Kidd says you can “get yourself in a loop where things become easier to engage with by learning some basic background material.”

Understanding how to stoke and strengthen your own curiosity has other benefits, too, including possibly enjoying your job more. When employees are given the right environments and tools, and naturally curious and engaged, they’re going to perform better. Developing the environments and cultures where they feel safe doing so can be a benefit for both the organization and the people who work there.

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About the author

Gwen Moran is a writer, editor, and creator of Bloom Anywhere, a website for people who want to move up or move on. She writes about business, leadership, money, and assorted other topics for leading publications and websites

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