I am pretty sure that you’ve all heard the saying ‘Curiosity Killed The Cat’…
Supposedly, this proverb originated from the English playwright Ben Jonson's play Every Man in His Humour, 1598: "Helter skelter, hang sorrow, care'll kill a Cat, up-tails all, and a Louse for the Hangman."
The proverbial expression 'curiosity killed the cat', which is usually used when attempting to stop someone asking unwanted questions, is much more recent. The earlier form was still in use in 1898, when it was defined in Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable: "Care killed the Cat. It is said that a cat has nine lives, but care would wear them all out."
Let’s be honest, curiosity hasn't received a good press over the centuries. Saint Augustine wrote in Confessions, AD 397, that, in the eons before creating heaven and earth, God "fashioned hell for the inquisitive".
John Clarke, in Paroemiologia, 1639 suggested that "He that pryeth into every cloud may be struck with a thunderbolt".
In Don Juan, Lord Byron called curiosity "that low vice". That bad opinion, and the fact that cats are notoriously inquisitive, led to the source of their demise being changed from 'care' to 'curiosity'.
Still, is there anyone reading this article who believes curiosity is a bad thing? Today, in the age of Internet and technology, that has made a lot of resourceful and curious people into extremely successful entrepreneurs, curiosity is mentioned as one of the essential traits of hugely successful people.
Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it is considered an essential attitude towards discovering, implementing and achieving new things. As a matter of fact, these are the exact words and expressions that you find in many of the job descriptions used in the corporate world today describing the behaviours that are considered critical for the success of candidates.
So, back to the title of this article: have you ever had the impression that your high levels of curiosity for whatever is around and behind your immediate field of activity may also be a drawback in your current job?
If you have, this may be because it could actually be true for you.
Communications, ours, our neighbour's, everyone’s, including our manager's, peers' and collaborators' are made of more than only content (the WHAT), if it wasn’t we would not be experiencing this many communication issues and misunderstanding in the era of over-communication.
In our direct relationships with other human beings, another aspect of the communication which is key to how we make our messages come through and how other perceive us is the non-verbal aspect (the HOW or non-direct WHAT).
According to modern studies in the field of communications sciences, the ultimate effectiveness of a message is the direct result of the interpretation abilities of the recipient. In other words, the same exact message can be interpreted differently by different recipients.
This is key in analyzing the matter at hand here right because your ‘curiosity’, and how you may be communicating it to the people around you, could also be interpreted differently from how you intend it yourself.
Let me ask you this: have you ever experienced being told by your line manager that you are ‘too curious’ and that this may be affecting your career, by limiting your access to growth opportunities? Some of you may have heard words such as ‘red flags’ or ‘derailers’.
I know that these words are commonly used during performance assessments, where ‘curiosity’ is wielded in front of employees as a weapon with the real meaning behind the expression being ‘I do not think that you are reliable collaborator’.
Those of you who have experienced this may not have heard these words being pronounced vocally, but have left the conversation with the distinct feeling of uneasiness that something in the discussion was not right.
So, what’s leading some people (and some organizations) to oust their aversion to ‘curious people’ even while suggesting that curiosity is essential to the success of the individuals and their roles?
The reality is that there is no single reason for that, but if there was one word I would use to summarize a common angle all these people come from, that is ‘perception’.
You see, curiosity IS a trait of successful people (fact) and I am convinced curiosity is essential for human beings not just to survive but to grow and thrive.
People Leaders know that as well of course (and, since you’re likely to be one of them, you too) but in order to reach their objectives (yes, we are all measured on pre-set G&O’s) they need to have the comfort (perception) that you and the other individuals part of their team will focus on achieving your G&O’s, so that they can achieve their own G&O’s.
Conversely, being ‘too curious’ (i.e. always finding ways to see more of what is beyond and around) could determine (in their eyes) that they may lose people they want to keep in their team because they are high-performers and can positively influence the whole team and their results, also creating a stable environment to support the People Leader to ‘move on’.
In other words, leaving behind a messy situation, with people leaving, unhappy or downright complaining, could be a very bad business card for a people leader trying to get to their next level of leadership within their organization, therefore some of them take this course of action before something (or someone) may speak about that.
This is not a rocket science principle and something we all, being human, can easily grasp, and there’s good reasons for it as well: like well-oiled machines, organizations (and this is truer the bigger the organization gets) must rely on all their gears, bolts and components to do their part, predictably, reliably and without failure.
Fact is, though, that people are not gears, bolts or components and, in all honesty, organizations are not machines because they are not built from robots for robots, but from people for people.
If ‘curiosity’, i.e. the experimentation of new things, is perceived as a lack of focus on the established G&O’s, your perception (the one that you may be offering), even if you may well be delivering and making a strenuous effort towards achieving your goals, will be that of a person who cannot be trusted as a reliable component of the whole.
In this case, curiosity may directly limit your access to opportunities for growth in your current environment since the perception of your direct manager is possibly having the single, most relevant impact to your career and compensation (just ask yourself ‘who is signing off on my yearly performance assessments, salary raise, bonus and vouch for my internal growth…?’, exactly).
I wouldn’t go as far as to say that this is the standard attitude towards curiosity everywhere, but it is a common sight the higher up the ladder of an organization, where executives don’t have the time to focus on the more menial tasks of the jobs their teams are paid to deliver, since they need to focus on creating and aligning strategies and directions.
Therefore the need to be able to ‘blindly’ (or ‘comfortably’ if you will) rely on their teams.
The cultural implications of this are relevant, especially in today’s world: stimuli and new things come up everyday, we are flooded with a constant stream of information and our organizations change on a yearly basis (at times even more) and yet the employees, who are often taking a more passive role in all these winds of change, are seemingly asked to be more machines than humans, discouraging at times their ‘curiosity’, seen as a threat to the harmony of the System.
This cultural divide is something that is emerging more and more as a real issue in the way people are managed, and something that organizations will have to come to terms with: changes in business and changes in the organizations are the products of changes in culture and society; employees are as well an active component of that culture and society, before being employees.
This means that not giving space to employees to naturally live and realize their role in society and culture is a bit like denying them the enjoyment and freedom of being human. In a world where AI promises to have one of the biggest impact factors to employment in the near future after the horse was substituted by cars, curiosity is still one of those characteristics that is preponderantly and uniquely human.
Limiting the curiosity of employees and people in general equals to not recognizing their being exquisitely human and this may trigger an opposite reaction to the one intended.
Individuals who are curious by nature cannot (and will not) be discouraged simply by being told not to be or, worse, by being threatened in their ability to grow: they will find another way to express their curiosity to the extent, in some cases, that they will look for other environments where to grow and thrive.
It is clear to anyone, hence, that a conscious effort should be made to harness curiosity, so that both the individuals and their organizations can benefit from it.
Despite our proficiency in technology and progresses in the world of robotics, cognitive computing and Artificial Intelligence, we still have much work to do in the realm of People Management, by not negating people their most human qualities, but instead by nurturing those, like curiosity, that can bring evident progresses not to individuals alone but to organizations and society.