Research: When — and Why — Employee Curiosity Annoys Managers

 In Leadership


In recent years, workplace curiosity has been called essential, transformational, and the most valuable characteristic that leaders can have. Research has shown that curiosity can facilitate psychological safety, problem solving, and innovation. Another study found that curious employees — who enjoy looking for new solutions to complex problems, are eager to learn, and seek information and develop new strategies — are more likely to be seen by leaders as competent, creative, and high-performing. Not surprisingly, organizations have been urged to cultivate and encourage employee curiosity.

However, some researchers have argued that curiosity may be a double-edged sword. For instance, curious individuals may satisfy their curiosity by taking unnecessary risks. Likewise, some managers may prefer that their employees stick to the script rather than questioning it or reinventing a new one; indeed, managers could dislike curious employees and see them as rule breakers—which is consistent with the proverb and admonition that “curiosity killed the cat.”

We recently conducted a series of studies to understand when curiosity may lead to different reactions in the workplace, with an emphasis on understanding if politically skilled employees are better able to express their curiosity in ways that are perceived more favorably by organizational leaders.

In our first study, we collected data from more than 900 leaders and employees working in three different companies in three different industries (human resource, sales and service, and manufacturing). Using a survey, we asked employees to indicate how much they expressed curiosity at work (e.g., seeking information until they are able to understand complex issues). We also measured their political skill by asking how good they are at networking, influencing others, expressing sincerity, and being socially aware.

In a separate questionnaire, their supervisors rated how much they liked the employee and indicated whether they thought the employee showed signs of insubordination (e.g., arrogance, rudeness). We also controlled for the potential influence of factors like the gender of leaders and employees, the length of their work relationship, and employees’ perceptions of psychological safety and their task performance.

Across all three samples, we found that curious employees were seen by their leaders as insubordinate and, in turn, less likable. However, curious employees who were politically skilled were not seen this way.

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To better understand the importance of political skill, we conducted a second study to see if the curiosity of politically skilled employees is more likely to be seen as constructive. Specifically, we asked 400 professional MBA students (who each also managed at least three employees) to participate in an online experiment. In our experiment, using previous research as a guide, we manipulated the curiosity and political skill of a fictional employee (Alex). For instance, curious Alex was described as someone who spends a lot of time seeking information to address work problems and thinks about a problem until it is solved; politically-skilled Alex was described as someone who understands people very well, is savvy about how to present to others, is able to communicate, appears genuine, and spends a lot of time networking and building relationships at work.

We again found that the curiosity of less politically skilled employees was not only more likely to be seen as insubordination (replicating what we found in our first study). We also found their behavior was less likely to be seen as constructive or contributing to organizational effectiveness.

In light of these findings, we wanted to investigate the possibility that leaders’ perceptions of the constructiveness of employee curiosity is what drives their perceptions of their employees. So, in a third study, we conducted another online experiment in which we asked 528 employees working in two large companies (an information technology company and a management consulting company) to read scenarios in which Alex either engaged in constructive or unconstructive curiosity. In our scenarios, constructive curiosity involved seeking information, knowledge, or learning by asking many provocative questions that don’t have easy answers; unconstructive curiosity involved seeking information, knowledge, or learning by asking too many questions and questions with easy answers. As we expected, Alex was seen as less insubordinate and more likable when engaging in curiosity that was constructive.

Let’s address the proverbial elephant in the room: Are employees or leaders to blame when leaders perceive employee curiosity as insubordination? We feel that both may be responsible with important caveats.

On the one hand, organizational leaders should be careful in their evaluations of workplace curiosity. If employees are being curious in constructive ways, it would be unwise and unfair for their leaders to penalize them. Therefore, leaders should ask themselves if they have biases, including unconscious ones, that may cause them to misjudge employees who seek information, knowledge, or learning in a genuine effort to make the workplace better.

On the other hand, when employee curiosity is unconstructive, leaders may be justified in discouraging such behavior. Given that politically skilled employees are adept at expressing curiosity without being seen as insubordinate, curious employees should ask themselves whether they also have good political skills. If they don’t, they should be careful about expressing curiosity or seek to improve their political skills through training, role-playing, coaching, practice, and other self-development practices that have been linked with the development of political skill. Further, our studies suggest that it is especially useful to try to express your curiosity in constructive ways, which means asking the right questions at the right time.

Curiosity may have killed the cat, but that doesn’t mean that such behavior needs to be fatal to the career success of employees. By expressing curiosity in politically smart and constructive ways, employees can contribute to their organization’s success without jeopardizing their own.



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