To Develop Emerging Leaders
– Inspire Curiosity!

Cats are notoriously inquisitive.

The old expression, “curiosity killed the cat”, has a core meaning: don’t ask too many questions. This is not a new idea, and rather comically Augustine1 suggests that, before creating heaven and earth, God “fashioned hell for the inquisitive”. Later, in Don Juan2 Byron exclaimed, “I loathe that low vice—curiosity”

This expression about cats and curiosity has remained, perhaps because, in many organisations, questioning can be perceived as attacking the status quo or challenging authority. History has revealed orthodoxy can be unkind to those who oppose it. This is reflected in old fables such as The Emperor’s New Clothes3, where everyone shares a common lie for fear of consequence. In this fable, it is finally the most curious, a child, who exclaims, “The Emperor is naked, he has no clothes!” And, suddenly, everyone feels free to admit their shared view of the world is flawed.

In ancient times, curiosity was the poor cousin of wonder. Wonder brought humility; whereas, curiosity was mischievous. Aristotle wrote curiosity is mostly a witless and aimless prying into things of no concern to us. In contrast, wonder is the root of true inquiry and the beginning of the love of wisdom (philosophy)4. There appears to be one significant difference between the two concepts: awe. Wonder sees the unknown and is amazed; curiosity takes that wonder and asks, “How does it work” and “How can we do it better?”

We are all born with an insatiable curiosity. An essential aspect of learning is asking why. As we age, this curiosity may become more focused with questions such as “How can we improve?”, “What is a different perspective?” or “Where can we get more information?” These questions fuel a lifelong journey of learning and discovery.

Curiosity has been defined as a need, thirst or desire for knowledge. It is central to personal motivation5, which is defined as the arousal, direction and persistence of behaviour6. Curiosity is a motivational prerequisite for exploratory behaviour7. At the core of curiosity are three components: learning, exploration and immersion8. Guo, Zhang, and Zhai describe this as a sensory curiosity (a focus on emotional experience), epistemic curiosity (a focus on the desire to gain new knowledge) and perceptual curiosity (a focus on what data is seen and heard)9.

The tantalising information gap

Curiosity tantalises us. It gives us the energy to pursue knowledge we do not have. In Greek mythology10, this is perhaps best illustrated by the story of Tantalus who, for his crimes, faced the punishment in Hades of having food and drink always in front of him, but every time he reached out for sustenance, the items moved slightly out of his grasp. Thus, the word “tantalise” conveys a sense of being teased by the unobtainable.

There is an unsettling cognitive dissonance that exists in being tantalised by the hope of something just out of one’s reach. This curiosity is an opportunity to test taken-for-granted assumptions and, therefore, to become aware of a gap in personal knowledge or skills. Lowenstein’s information gap theory asserts that “curiosity happens when we feel a gap in our knowledge”. To alleviate feelings of deprivation (i.e., missing out), Lowenstein11 found the intensity of curiosity is linked to the likelihood of being able to fill this information gap. We work hard attempting to solve a puzzle until we can see what the image may be. Lowenstein also discovered we are more curious about knowledge gaps in areas we already know about. In other words, if we have a 7/10 knowledge of cats, we are more likely to want to fill in the gap than if we only had 1/10 knowledge of cats. In this way, curiosity is seen to enhance learning when knowledge gaps are posed as questions, puzzles, dilemmas and cases12.

Given this, curiosity may increase the learner’s motivation to think more often and more intently about the subject under consideration, resulting in “deeper” learning rather than merely skimming and doing the bare minimum to get by13. This enhanced learning is brought about by a desire to resolve the dissonance often induced by curiosity14.

These information gaps need to be manageable for students, and educators, therefore, should be acutely aware of what those gaps are for their students. Lowenstein’s15 research suggests that, when the information gap is small, curiosity is heightened. This is consistent with the view presented by Litman et al.: “When we know nothing, we aren’t curious at all. We have nowhere to begin, and therefore no curiosity to drive us to acquire the knowledge.”16 Litman et al. identified a “tip of the tongue” phenomenon, explaining we are “most curious when we feel the need to recall something that we are close to remembering.”17 On the other hand, when we already know something, our curiosity has been satiated and our desire for learning diminishes. In this way, curiosity is so personally motivating because it has very little to do with what we feel we “have to do”, and a lot to do with what “we want to do”. This reinforces the idea that regular “check-ins” with learners to assess their current knowledge is essential in keeping curiosity alive.18 Otherwise, it may slip into one of two extremes: not enough information gap equals boredom; and too much information gap equals a sense of being overwhelmed.

The advantages of curious learning at work

When we are curious at work we are more resourceful. We ask more questions such as: “what can I do to be better?” or “Are there different ways I can solve this problem?” Consequently, we naturally come up with interesting and innovative ideas. In this way, the following occurs:

  • Curiosity quickly builds rapport, trust and relationship quality.19
  • Curiosity lures us out of our comfort zone. The unknown is not as scary when curiosity enables us to peek into the darkness and, while we know there will be surprises, our fear is overpowered by our curiosity as a result of our desire to discover something new.
  • Curiosity helps us to frame difficult discussions in a friendly manner—for example, stating “I’m curious about why you did it that way” is easier (and will likely be better received) than stating “Why did you do it like that?”
  • Curiosity advances empathy in people helpers (e.g., doctors, nurses, psychologists, and pastors)20, as it helps us appreciate people’s personal circumstances and perspectives.
  • Curiosity improves workplace learning and increases job performance.21
  • Curiosity allows us to be more solution-focused. It helps us explore possibilities and see things from different perspectives. For example, asking “How can I improve that?” leads to innovation and new ways of facing the future.
  • Curiosity helps improve our enjoyment of life and satisfaction with living.22
  • Curiosity helps us find peace. When we are willing to stand in someone else’s shoes, we can better understand the perspectives of others in a way that diminishes conflict and misunderstandings.
  • Curiosity builds resilience and helps us manage change. Furthermore, it focuses us on the adventure of what might be ahead rather than on a fear of the unknown.
  • Curiosity can enhance self-awareness—the key to personal learning. When we feel free to look within and to be vulnerable, honest, and willing to question who we really are and what truly motivates us, we are then ready to learn and grow.

Curiosity is a resource for peak performance. It is a powerful motivator for learning, innovation and productivity. Great leaders are challenged to inspire curiosity in their teams to develop emerging leaders who will produce great results for their business.

Copyright © 2020 The Colloquium Group.

This is an adapted excerpt from the upcoming book: Savouring Life: The Leader’s Journey to Peak Performance By Stephen Smith, Murray Bingham, Catherine Kleemann, Anna Reznik and Carol Salvadori.

  1. Augustine, Confessions (Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1961).
  2. Lord Byron, Don Juan: In Sixteen Cantos (Milner and Sowerby: Halifax, 1837).
  3. The Emperor’s New Clothes was written by Hans Christian Anderson in 1837 and is based on a 1335 story from a medieval Spanish collection of short fables. In the story, two tailors make a new set of clothes for an emperor, saying their garment is so special that it is invisible to anyone who is stupid or unfit for their position. In reality, they make nothing, pretending they have made the most beautiful piece of clothing in the world. No one is willing to admit they cannot see it for fear of being seen as stupid and for challenging the shared lie. Finally, it is a child who yells from the crowd, “He isn’t wearing anything at all!” Everyone then laughs and the fear is gone.
  4. P Ball, Curiosity: How Science Became Interested in Everything (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013).
  5. H Fowler, Curiosity and Exploratory Behaviour (New York: Macmillan, 1965).
  6. R E Franken, Human Motivation, 3rd ed. (California: Brooks/Cole, 1994).
  7. D E Berlyne, Conflict, Arousal, and Curiosity (New York: McGraw Hill, 1960).
  8. T B Kashdan and P J Silvia, “Curiosity and Interest: The Benefits of Thriving on Novelty and Challenge,” in Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 367–374.
  9. S Guo, G Zhang and R Zhai, “A Potential Way of Enquiry into Human Curiosity,” British Journal of Educational Technology 41, no. 3 (2010): E48–E52.
  10. Homer’s Odyssey, Book XI.
  11. G Lowenstein, “The Psychology of Curiosity: A Review and Reinterpretation,” Psychological Bulletin 116, no. 1 (1994): 75–98. 
  12. C von Renesse and V Ecke, “Teaching Inquiry with a Lens Toward Curiosity,” Problems, Resources, and Issues in Mathematics Undergraduate Studies 27, no. 1 (2017): 148–164.
  13. F Marton and R Saljo, “On Qualitative Differences in Learning: Outcome and Process,” British Journal of Educational Psychology 46 (1976): 4–11. 
  14. F Craik and R Lockhart, “Levels of Processing: A Framework for Memory Research,” Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior 11 (1972): 671–84.
  15. Craik and Lockhart, “Levels of Processing,” 75–98.
  16. J A Litman, T L Hutchins and R K Russon, “Epistemic Curiosity, Feeling-of-Knowing, and Exploratory Behaviour,” Cogn. Emot 19 (2005): 559–582.
  17. Litman, Hutchins and Russon, “Epistemic Curiosity,” 566.
  18. S M Ginsberg, “‘Mind the Gap’ in the Classroom,” Journal of Effective Teaching 10 (2010): 74–80.
  19. Todd B. Kashdan and John E. Roberts, “Trait and State Curiosity in the Genesis of Intimacy: Differentiation from Related Constructs,” Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 23, no. 6 (2004): 792–816.
  20. J Halpern, From Detached Concern to Empathy: Humanizing Medical Practice (London: Oxford University Press, 2001).
  21. Thomas G. Reio Jr. and Albert Wiswell, “Field Investigation of the Relationship among Adult Curiosity, Workplace Learning, and Job Performance,” Human Resource Development Quarterly 11, no. 1 (2000): 5–30.
  22. Todd B. Kashdan, Paul Rose and Frank D. Fincham, “Curiosity and Exploration: Facilitating Positive Subjective Experiences and Personal Growth Opportunities,” Journal of Personality Assessment 82, no. 3 (2004): 291–305.