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Curiosity and Corporate Culture 

Chapter from

'The Workplace Curiosity Manifesto"


Stefaan van Hooydonk

"A growth mindset thrives in the diversity of ideas
and if the culture inhibits psychological safety, then
people may not freely bring both good and bad
ideas forward, which will limit innovation.”

— Satya Nadella, CEO, Microsoft —

"How different are teams from organizations, other than size and numbers of people? Does curiosity work the same way whether you are talking about a small group or a large group?” 

Growth Mindset In Action 

I have always been intrigued by how the culture and values of an organization can show up differently in different offices. For instance, in global organizations, if you visit different regional offices, say London, Beijing, and Mexico City offices, you find yourself in a different atmosphere. 

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Such different atmospheres are found also across teams. The design team will invariably have a different feel than the legal team. It depends on the context they work in, the kind of people who work there, the average age, the management style, the local culture, and many other dimensions. Focusing on the nuclear unit of the team to drive organizational success is the right strategy.

Curiosity is felt at the level of the team. 

This does not mean the overarching organization, or the C-suite, has no role to play. Quite the contrary. Though it is possible to find pockets of curious teams in otherwise incurious environments, the culture and climate the CEO creates has a direct impact on the curiosity level of the organization. 

At an organizational level, curiosity is the driver for creativity and innovation. When comparing curiosity to the growth mindset concept, I agree with curiosity researcher and leadership consultant Alison Horstmeyer: 

“Curiosity is growth mindset in action.” 

Curiosity does not settle for the status quo; instead, it retains a healthy level of humility and allows divergent opinions to emerge. It also supports organizational learning through active openness to processes, like after-action reviews, especially a desire to learn from things that went south. Curious organizations create a positive brand for themselves. When I ask people about their top three curious companies, Steve Jobs’ Apple is often mentioned. Most people want to work for successful brands with a clearly articulated purpose. 

Curious organizations allow for curiosity to thrive through their culture, processes, and practices and believe the curiosity muscle of every employee needs to be nourished. They also believe this muscle can be enhanced with curiosity-en-hancing tools to unlock its power. They know to tap into the collective wisdom of all employees they need to embrace curiosity and banish fear. As John Hunt in The Art of The Idea writes, “Fear might be a strong catalyst for entrenching obedience, but it’s a lousy motivator for fresh thinking” (Hunt 2009). 

Though the C-suite and management in organizations are generally in favor of the notion of curiosity, the situation on the ground can be different. 


Did Satya Nadella fully know he was about to start an internal revolution at Microsoft when he took the helm in February 2014? He did realize, under his predecessor Steve Ballmer, Microsoft had become a sluggish multinational company. Steve Ballmer had grown the business, yet he had steered Microsoft in an unfavorable direction. While the first stint of Microsoft under Bill Gates can be characterized as entrepreneurial, CEO Ballmer had introduced a reductive textbook management culture. Conformity and obedience were more important than curiosity and challenging the status quo. People in power, whether they were technical experts or in leadership positions, were carrying weight and not to be questioned. They also were supposed to have unwavering answers to all questions, or so they told themselves. 

Satya Nadella realized brewing underneath was an unhealthy culture. Instead of focusing on the easy way out, i.e., organizational restructuring and lay-offs, his surgery tackled something deeper: the underlying culture. Before he tackled his partnership strategy, acquisitions, and technology investments, he refocused the company toward a growth mindset, curiosity, and non-violent conversations. What is important to know is this mindset was already part of his own personality, and he was able to imprint his beliefs and values on this organization. In Mr. Nadella’s own words, “A growth mindset thrives in the diversity of ideas, and if the culture inhibits psychological safety, then people may not freely bring both good and bad ideas forward, which will limit innovation” (Hoffman 2021). 

The results of the Microsoft turnaround are remarkable. 

Beyond early start-ups, which often have a highly curious and passionate founder, I am seeing other companies also embracing curiosity for their organizations. For instance, the CEO of Novartis, Vas Narasimhan, is also a highly curious individual: he has imprinted his personality on Novartis by changing its people values to “inspired, unbossed, and curious”—this has led the HR team to change their processes and their L&D organization to focus more on curiosity. It starts most of the time at the top, yet it does not have to be this way. I have observed single teams create the right curious environment for themselves before the wider organization got interested. 

What we have seen is since the end of the twentieth century and the recent COVID-19 crisis, change can be difficult for those companies not open to it. We can easily remember IBM believing a PC in every home would be foolish, Kodak not envisioning digital photography would take over analog photography, or Nokia not believing phones would be smarter than just talking voice devices. Even if some of their employees saw the storm coming, most of them did not, or at least the collective mind of these organizations did not give space to these new ideas to flourish. 

During COVID-19, we have seen in the same industries, some companies are thriving while others are barely surviving. This is because they are allowing for curiosity. They retain a level of wonder of what could be, a level of humility to make sure they don’t become arrogant, and a level of openness to make them change. 

Curious organizations are organizations engaging in two activities above what other successful companies do. First, they are intentional about creating the right environment for curiosity to flourish through their culture, values, processes, and practices. Second, they are also intentional about helping those individuals, leaders, and teams in building a curious mindset. Simply instructing people to “just be curious” does not make them so. 

Curiosity as the North Star 

Some companies have curiosity in their corporate values and are using this value as a North Star to follow. This is remarkable. When sharing a list of thirty companies on LinkedIn with curiosity articulated in their values, I got different reactions. Some people were proud of their organizations, yet some others were hesitant. When talking to them, some of them confessed curiosity is the most dif- ficult value they have, or it is the least developed one. One company executive shared with me that curiosity referred to the original work ethic of the company’s founders, yet their entrepreneurial (and curious) spirit had long been replaced by risk-averse management structures. A third type of reply to my post came from start-ups for not being included in the list, yet who had curiosity articulated in their values. 

Start-ups are a good breeding ground for curiosity. 

Organizational curiosity, just like individual curiosity, is a muscle that must be developed. Workplace curiosity in multinational companies can be a force to increase competi- tiveness, innovation, productivity, learning, and engagement, yet it is fragile if not managed intentionally. Even when they are not proactively engaged in curiosity, most organizations do have the foundations to build curious cultures. Harvard professor Francesca Gino confirmed, “By making small changes to the design of their organization and the ways they manage employees, leaders can encourage curiosity and improve their companies and make rapid changes” (Gino 2018). 

Before we dive in further, it is important to state the obvi- ous: curiosity is not a free for all. The best organizations and leaders can know when to allow for exploration and when to stop exploration and move into exploitation. Agility and curiosity go hand in hand. In December 2020, the company SurveyMonkey came out with a report stating, the combined set of curiosity and agility were the two best predictors whether a company would survive the backlash of COVID-19. They defined curiosity as the openness to try new things and agility as the speed by which these new things could be productized or materialized. This also has been my finding in the context of effective curious leaders. Curious leaders know when to allow curiosity/ ideation/experimentation and when to move to action (SurveyMonkey 2020). 

Another way to look at this is the following: Agility means the ability to change fast and be flexible. Curiosity is the underlying mindset as it provides the desire to change and provides its overall direction. Interestingly, both agility and curiosity are relatively new concepts in the management literature. 

IntentionaIity Versus the Chernobyl Effect 

The Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster is an extreme example of how things can go wrong. According to the online Encyclopedia Britannica, the reason the core of the nuclear power plant in Ukraine melted was one of a series of human errors that could have been avoided. It is a telling metaphor for companies and incuriosity, a closed, fixed, and conformist mindset, and a collective cognitive bias. It shows a disregard for broader exploration of the reasons behind a crisis and a desire to ask only questions when the answers are predictable. 

Curiosity is not reserved only for start-ups. I have observed scale-ups and large organizations who are also able to embrace the notion of exploration as part of their operations; who are creating cultures, processes, and practices to celebrate curiosity, who allow their employees to take calculated risks and encourage them to stick out their necks; who create a climate of openness where it is okay to ask questions, and it is not a blemish if the leader does not have all the answers. Curious organizations also have learned, it is more profitable to treat people like creative authentic agents rather than cogs in a mechanistic system, able to be exchanged at a whim. 

Intentionality is an important factor in management. If left to chance, curiosity will likely not flourish. What gets measured gets done. Some companies are intentional about workplace curiosity in a single process (e.g., curiosity only reserved for leadership) or single function (e.g., curiosity only valued in departments such as R&D or HR functions such as recruitment or learning and development). 

Who Would you Promote? 

No company is 100 percent curious or 100 percent incurious. There are gradations of curiosity as well as levels of intentionality. All companies are to be found somewhere between these two extremes. Indeed, organizational curiosity is a state. It is something that evolves, something that grows or withers. Start-ups tend to be high on curiosity. One dimension of curiosity is the acceptance of failure: in comparing start-ups with global large-scale traditional organizations, I have found start-ups are four times readier to learn from failures versus established organizations. This also means large organizations are four times less ready to consider failures as learning opportunities. 

Curiosity is the driver for innovation, for never settling for the status quo, for retaining a healthy level of organizational humility, for actively allowing divergent opinions to emerge. It also supports organizational learning through active openness to processes like for instance after-action-reviews, especially a desire to learn from things that went south. 

Though the C-suite and management in organizations are generally in favor of the notion of curiosity the situation on the ground can be different. When asking professionals whether their organizations are curious, about 84 percent are positive. This makes sense; we can all associate some form of curiosity on the work floor. Seventy-four percent of the same group of professionals, however, also share their organizations created barriers that stifle curiosity. 

These findings are echoed by research from Harvard Business School studying curiosity from employees in a wide range of firms and industries. The researchers found only about 24 percent reported feeling curious in their jobs on a regular basis, and about 70 percent said they face barriers to asking more questions at work (Gino 2018). 

Organizations can support or stifle curiosity through its practices, processes, culture, and climate. I often present the following situation to executives. Imagine you are part of a promotion committee. Your brief is to review the cases of two candidates and select only one of them to be promoted. 

1. Jeff deserves to be on the list. He performed consis- tently over time and has proven year after year to be a loyal employee. Whatever challenges he is asked to take on, he will deliver. Managers like him. 

2. Mary also has made it to the shortlist. She also has been performing well in her core tasks. Some colleagues have complained she does not always follow the rules. She is known to ask tough questions of management. She has been fiercely loyal. Last year, she volunteered to join a team looking at an innovative customer project. If successful, this project would have the potential of bigger things. Even the board was interested in this project. As it happens, the project failed miserably. Nobody dares to talk about it. 

Who will you promote? 

I have done this experiment with thousands of people. What I find time after time is: executives say their organizations promote Jeff; while at the same time they add, it should be in fact Mary who should be promoted. 

Traits of Curious Companies 

We can distill the following differences between curious and incurious companies.

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Curious companies see first-time failures as an opportunity to learn. They have a clarity of vision and strategy. They are driven by an intentional curious culture and create the right processes and practices to support both exploration and exploitation. In such companies, we find high levels of psychological safety and diversity of gender, thought, and experience. 


The Obligation to Dissent 


Do you support employees in your companies who dissent? 


In my interview with Dr. Nick van Dam, former chief learning officer and partner at McKinsey & Company and now professor and human development scientist at IE university in Madrid, he immediately started talking about his experience at McKinsey when I asked him for his opinion about archetypes of curious organizations. 


One of the values held high in the company is its “obligation to dissent”, he shared. Every employee, from the day they join the company, is asked to dissent where they think they should. This means not only being told it is okay to disagree, even stronger: it is expected. There is a realization older and more experienced people do not have all the knowledge and new perspectives are welcomed and rewarded, not punished. 


I have also experienced this type of behavior firsthand as a customer of McKinsey & Company. All McKinsey consultants I worked with on strategy projects showed up as smart, data-driven consultants with a strong initial listening bias as they wanted to understand my corporate landscape as quickly as possible. Once they were up to speed, they became cocreators of the new processes, not as merely translators of my management team’s and my own points of view, but also with a clear license to dissent in case they felt our approaches were not deeply thought through or not data-driven enough if present operations started to dictate the narrative. This was clearly a strength I admired and welcomed. 


McKinsey consultants I worked with shared some of their internal practices with me, practices that ensure the intellectual curiosity of their consultants is kept high. For instance, consultants need to keep their knowledge proactively up to date and share their growth. To support this, McKinsey has automated the individual online profiles of each consultant in the company: every time a consultant (co)writes a paper, takes a course, or works on a customer project, the individual profile gets automatically updated. 


“About 90 percent of the content on each consultant’s internal profile gets populated automatically, 10 percent can be added manually,” they shared, “This creates positive stress among consultants to keep constantly building and sharing knowledge.” 


They further confirmed with me, “The better one’s CV, the easier one gets invited to new and interesting projects and the better it is for internal promotion. What we write gets appreciated internally, yet even more so if it gets published in McKinsey Quarterly or other external platforms. Also joining courses to up-skill oneself instead of being billed on customer projects is expected of all.” 

McKinsey also over-indexes on other processes to create a curious culture supporting curious minds. From the time consultants join the company, they are encouraged to “make your own McKinsey,” meaning they are empowered to create their own career path. Not a predetermined top- down path the manager, human resources, or the orga- nization forces upon people, but a path everyone creates for her or himself. 


McKinsey is particularly good at its onboarding process. Van Dam particularly mentioned the new manager onboarding program in this regard.  


“Becoming a team manager is a big thing at McKinsey. If you are part of the select few invited to become a manager, one typically has spent about six years with the company, has proved to be good in an individual contributor consulting role, and has shown leadership qualities in line with McKinsey’s values.” 


To support these new managers, they are invited to join the INSPIRE program, which is a week-long program in one of the leadership centers of McKinsey. 


During these five days secluded in the mountains, managers don’t focus on the operational aspects of being a good people manager, but instead are invited to reflect on their own individual purpose, value system, and beliefs. “This is a powerful experience, and sometimes so powerful that people decide to leave the company at the end of this program if they realize after deep self-reflection that their career path is elsewhere.” 


A powerful side note is McKinsey does not think ill of these people who resign but embraces them as alumni and keeps nourishing the relationship with them post departure. This is not only driven by empathy, but McKinsey alumni also tend to end up in senior corporate roles and once in need of consulting power, they often invite McKinsey to do the work. 


What we learn from this, is McKinsey & Company is an example of an above average curious global company. One could be easily sidetracked by the fact this strategic consulting company is so particular, it cannot provide lessons for other companies. 


I beg to differ: a culture of obligation to dissent, a proactive job rotation, a thorough recruitment process, focus on helping new managerial talent to explore themselves first to ground them more as a prelude to managing others, empowering employees to chart their own career journey are all dimensions other companies can learn from.... Surely it is not easy to copy such practices, yet with the right intent, discipline, and focus, it can make a difference toward becoming a curious organization. 


Curious Minds Dedicated to Human Progress 


When it comes to curiosity, Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany is one of the more intentional companies I have had the good fortune to study. They are intentional about curiosity. They actively measure and steer curiosity, they sponsor academic research about curiosity, they enable curiosity in both of their processes (e.g., recruitment, product innovation, training), and they also train people and teams on practical ways to engage more with their own curiosity mindset. 


Christine Blum-Heuser, associate director of the company’s brand initiative and involved in its curiosity initiative since 2015, shared with me a fundamental belief they share within the company: “Innovative thinking can come from anybody and anywhere, inside and outside the organization, from all levels, not only the experts.” 

As early as 2015, the company began adopting intentional curiosity. Initially, it was a theme combining the deeper nature of their three distinct businesses, i.e., pharma, life sciences, and electronics. Quickly, it became a global initiative encompassing their entire organization. They have been working with academics to look for ways to measure, influence, and foster curiosity at levels of the individual, team, and organization. They train their employees on topics such as stress management (the biggest detractor of curiosity), innovative question strategies, training to explore alternative strategies, and hypothesis testing to mention a few. 


Curiosity has also been embraced in the recruitment branding promise of Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany to new employees with this statement: “Bring your curiosity to life.” 

That curiosity is not merely a nice-to-have for the company is highlighted by Christine. 
Curiosity plays a major role in creating flexibility of thinking of our employees and their willingness to leave the beaten path and pioneer new directions. It’s not about methods we use per se; it is more about the mindset at individual, team, and organizational level. If we fail to be curious, we lose potential and positive opportunities. 


When asking her what lessons she has learned that could be relevant for other companies, she listed the following: 


  • Become aware of the deeper impact curiosity can play in your organization. 

  • Excite people. Curiosity is a sleeping beauty. People often bring their curiosity to life in their private lives; you need to welcome it into the workplace and trigger it. 

  • Have an executive sponsor. Enable from the top and create the right structure and organizational desire. 

  • Enable from the bottom. Create a pull factor. Make your employees want to join you in your curiosity journey. Enable them with curiosity mindset training. 

  • Make it a company value. Embed curiosity in your underlying value system. 

Remember, curiosity is something we’re born with, or the spark that kickstarted your company. We just need to find our way back to looking at the world and asking, “Why?” and “How?” and “What’s possible?” Imagine what our organizations could achieve when people begin learning and asking questions about the things they want to know about. When they do, new strategies emerge. 

The strategy process is the focus of the next chapter. At an aggregated level, how do the CEO and his team create a supporting strategy enabling them to fully embrace the past, the present, and the future? Easier said than done, we will see the strategy process in companies is often a difficult dance between continuing the status quo and exploring new horizons. 


Summary: The Big Idea of this Chapter


Workplace curiosity is a force to increase competitiveness, innovation, productivity, learning, and engagement, yet it is fragile if not managed intentionally. By making small changes to the design of their organizations and the way they manage their employees, leaders can encourage curiosity. 

In the light of accelerated economic activity toward the fourth industrial revolution driven by infotech and biotech, companies cannot afford to be incurious. An incurious organization will become complacent, will not learn from mistakes, will be arrogant, and will miss the corner of innovation in the light of new competition. 


Workplace curiosity can be a force to increase competitiveness, innovation, productivity, learning, and engagement, yet is fragile if not managed intentionally. 


Curiosity is best expressed at the level of the team, yet top leadership has a huge influence in how they shape the culture and influence processes and practices of their organization. 


By making small changes to the design of their organizations and the ways they manage their employees, leaders can encourage curiosity and improve their companies. This is true in every industry and for creative and routine work alike. Every company has the right foundation to build on. Organizational curiosity is not reserved for start-ups or for new age enterprises. 


Many organizations have embedded curiosity in their corporate values and strategic charters. These companies are helping others in making the case for change. 

Questions for Reflection 

  • If you were asked to advise your CEO or your board to make changes to embrace workplace curiosity even more, what single advice would you give them? 

  • When considering your corporate culture, would you say your company errs on the side of curiosity or more on the side of conformity? (Tip: The objective of the company is to be good at both.) 

  • What best practices can you think of excellence in curiosity in your company or in other companies? 

  • How widely accepted is failure? Is it celebrated as a learning opportunity, or is it a career-limiting move? 

  • How easy is it to innovate at your level, suggest improvements, and implement them?

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