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Embracing a Culture of Curiosity in a VUCA World

By Anabel Dumlao
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By Anabel Dumlao & Stefaan van Hooydonk

 

What would the corporate world look like if there was no curiosity at work? What if we stopped being inquisitive about the world, others, and ourselves? In times of disruptive change, individuals and leaders need to embrace both: running the present and preparing for the future. Those who are good at both will thrive in the 21st century. Curiosity is preparing for a comeback. According to LinkedIn data, there has been a year-on-year 90% growth in the use of the word curiosity in job advertisements.

As many leaders can attest to, there is a difference between complicated and complex problems. Complicated problems are what dominated our 20th century — they could be solved with technical expertise, in a methodical and relatively more linear fashion. The reality of the 21st century is that our world, and our problems, are VUCA — that is, volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. We cannot solve our problems with just the expertise and experience of the past because the variables are constantly changing. Solving complex problems require openness to new realities.

Due to these factors, the human dimension of life and work has become even more profoundly important. While humans have always mattered, the focus in the 20th century was on efficiency and production. Now, due to the complexity of our problems, there is more focus on the greyer area: the human dimension, of which curiosity is one of the central drivers of.

Today, research by SAS.com has discovered that nearly three quarters (72%) of managers believe curiosity is a very valuable trait in employees, with more than half strongly agreeing that curiosity drives real business impact (59%) and that employees who have more curiosity are higher performers (51%). Other research by SurveyMonkey found that the key ingredients for companies to weather economic downturn during COVID-19 were Curiosity and Agility. At a personal level, the Global Curiosity Institute (GCI) has established that curious professionals and leaders make faster careers and take home higher salaries. GCI has also found the need for a symbiotic positive relation between curious professionals and curious organizations. Curious organizations are those who embrace curiosity intentionally and ensure curiosity is celebrated throughout through their positive culture, processes and practices.

To enable this, what sort of culture must be created? People cannot be afraid of being wrong. They cannot be afraid of telling difficult truths. And they must feel psychologically safe. In other words, there must be cultures of learning, and where a player mindset is safe and encouraged. A player mindset is when faced with a situation, we concentrate on our own behavior and our ability to respond — focusing on factors within our control and what can be done to improve the situation. In a mindset like this, we are naturally curious, because we are constantly aware of our own actions and reactions, and can take positive action. The opposite of a player mindset is a victim mindset, where we hide behind factors outside of our control. Cultures where blaming abounds encourage victimhood, which drives curiosity and learning away.

A second mindset linked to curiosity and conscious business is key: “the learner mindset”, as opposed to “the knower mindset”. Being a knower is not about being knowledgeable, but about the concept of Truth and how we interpret the reality around us. The knower thinks the way that they perceive reality is THE Truth. The learner, on the other hand, understands that their perception is ‘their’ truth, and that other truths may also exist. Being a learner is about accepting different perspectives: the knower holds expertise with certainty, while the learner may have expertise also, but holds it with curiosity. These are not permanent tags; a person can shift from one mindset to the other at will. In a learner mindset, being curious does not mean we become unproductive or indecisive. On the contrary, engaging in difficult conversations as a learner instead of a knower is more effective.

 

So how do you start the journey of culture change?

Anabel Dumlao; Partner, Axialent: People who belong to a culture act how they think they are supposed to act. They will try to belong, or leave the culture if they feel stifled. The first step is to realize that culture is built — that levers do exist. In other words, it starts with awareness. If you don’t realize this, you will end up with a culture by default and not by design. Culture changes when behaviors, symbols, and systems change consistently over time. When it comes to curiosity, this means that you will observe behaviors like leaders asking sincere questions, symbols like people whose ‘productive failures’ get them promoted and not expelled, or systems like learning and development that track what people learned more than the hours they spent training. The culture designed should be one where people can thrive and delight customers. And we must remember, the shadow of a leader is long. Leaders who lead by example and show up with curiosity, invite the team to follow their example. Those who don’t, stifle the team.

Stefaan van Hooydonk; Founder of the Global Curiosity Institute: Awareness is indeed the first step towards action as it paves the way for taking positive and intentional action to do something about the status quo. Intentionality is therefore crucial for companies to embrace a culture which celebrates both exploitation and exploration, both celebrating the past and embracing the unknown future. Curiosity can be measured and be managed. You can measure the status quo, and derive action plans from there. When it comes to training people, some companies focus on changing their environment, while others focus on training mindset and habits, some do both. In any case, C-suites are becoming acutely aware that what worked in the 20thcentury does not necessarily work in the 21st century. The 20th century was stable, and we didn’t require too much focus much on creativity, curiosity, or innovation. Companies like Microsoft have changed the paradigm with leaders like Satya Nadella, who inspired his management team to shift from “know it all” to “learn it all”.

 

Our awareness and how we approach change makes the difference between how reliant we are on past solutions, versus how curious and adaptable we can be to this VUCA world we now live in. Today, we need to be learners and problem finders. Problem-solving is when we use our current skill set to find a solution. Problem-finding is when we predict what could go wrong, which requires a much more open, curious, and imaginative mindset.

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