People find their work meaningful when their actions result in fulfilling their own highly valued aims, attaining competence, experiencing positive self-regard, and forming significant connections to their jobs, peers and managers, and organizations. According to a study conducted by Globoforce’s WorkHuman Research Institute and IBM’s Smarter Workforce Institute, meaningful work emerged as the single largest contributor to a positive employee experience. Yet, a survey of more than 12,000 employees across companies and industries indicated that 50 percent of respondents lacked a sense of meaning and significance at work. Even more concerning, statistics from the VIA Institute on Character indicate that 1 in 5 employees dread work or wish they could just stay home.
When employees lack a sense of meaning in their work, they become disengaged, and their performance and career development can suffer. Studies have shown that a lack of meaningfulness at work can increase employee stress and absenteeism while eroding work motivation, engagement, and job satisfaction. According to a 2017 Gallup workplace report, only 33 percent of employees report being engaged in their jobs, 51 percent of employees are actively looking for a new job or watching for openings, and 35 percent have changed jobs within the past three years.
To enhance employees’ meaning in work, organizations may engage employees in “job crafting,” where employees co-design their work to give them purpose while still meeting the core components of their role. Other approaches include encouraging employees to act as company representatives on industry-specific committees, taking on new responsibilities that expand their skillsets, or participating in peer-to-peer recognition systems. For example, JetBlue’s implementation of a peer-to-peer recognition system that focused on company values resulted in an increase in employee satisfaction, which is related to meaningfulness, by 88 percent. An employee’s work orientation can also affect how meaning in work is experienced. For example, a person with a “service” orientation may consider work meaningful if it improves others’ lives or advances a cause, whereas an individual with a “career” orientation may find work meaningful when the work acts as a conduit for recognition and advancement.
Although adjusting and evolving job designs, practices, and culture to align employee work and meaning can be effective, these efforts require substantial time and resources. Such a significant investment may not yield results in time to support the organization’s more near-term strategic objectives or impending annual goals. In these cases, it may be necessary to find alternative, more accessible ways to enhance employees’ sense of meaning at work. One way business leaders can help themselves and employees enhance the meaningfulness of their work is by adopting a curious mindset.
Three Ways a Curious Mindset Enhances the Meaningfulness of Work
Effect 1: Engagement
Curiosity has a generative nature due to inherent seeking and exploring behaviors and openness to incoming information. These behaviors comprise a so-called approach orientation and facilitate learning, competence, autonomy, and absorption in work. People exhibiting this orientation tend to engage in self-directed pursuits and potentially expand their thinking, feeling, and acting related to complex or novel problems. The result is an expanded problem-solving tool kit because these individuals tend to better withstand the distress or negative emotions associated with the challenges of autonomously driven pursuits. Curiosity researchers Dr. Todd Kashdan and colleagues added that this orientation yields a form of resiliency that enables people to be more innovative and creative. Harrison, Pinkus, and Cohen found in their research that curiosity helps employees engage more deeply in their work, generate new ideas, and share those ideas with others.
SurveyMonkey’s interim executive chairman Zander Lurie deliberately leveraged the power of curiosity for innovation. In town hall meetings and other forums, employees were encouraged to ask questions and the company celebrated the “question of the week” chosen from employee surveys. Lurie implemented a peer recognition program to reward people who dared to be especially candid and sponsored internal team hackathons that led to a significant breakthrough feature called SurveyMonkey Genius.
Effect 2: Interpersonal Dexterity
Human beings are inherently social creatures. Michael Steger, international expert on meaning and quality of life, asserts that meaning is found primarily in who people are with rather than in what they are doing. Research suggests that employees experience richer interpersonal relationships (and, in turn, enhance their sense of meaning) when they operate from a curious mindset. This is because, based on self-report and others’ observations, curious people are less anxious, timid, or defensive during initial encounters with strangers., Research further shows that curiosity is associated with less aggressive reactions to perceived triggers, improved conflict resolution skills, enhanced motivation to put oneself in one another’s shoes, less attachment to one’s own ideas, and increased interest in others’ ideas. Accordingly, curious employees reportedly are more likely to receive social support and are more effective at building connections, trust, and commitment on their teams. Managers at Procter & Gamble Brazil demonstrated these interpersonal effects when they challenged strategic and organizational traditions by self-organizing internally to ensure closer cross-functional teamwork and leveraging relationships with customers to develop low-cost, high-quality alternatives to premium products. The implications of this collection of research are that adopting a curious mindset can lead to stronger interpersonal skills, which may enhance one’s relationships by reducing interpersonal conflict and, in turn, deliver innovative solutions that increase one’s sense of meaningfulness at work.
Effect 3: Growth Mindset
Curiosity has been linked to growth-oriented behaviors, such as persevering over obstacles, achieving goals, and choosing activities that stretch and develop skills. Such behaviors require effort and intention, leading to a larger scale shift from individuals simply trying to prove themselves at work to individuals embracing a growth mindset by focusing on continually improving themselves. A growth mindset concerns faith in one’s own ability to develop and that development is important to one’s work. In effect, a growth mindset can promote a broadening and building of abilities stemming from continuous learning and improvement.
Cultures that foster a growth mindset view all employees as possessing potential, encourage employees to develop, and acknowledge and reward improvement. Telenor, a 160-year-old Norwegian multinational telecommunications company, introduced a growth mindset culture characterized by perseverance, curiosity, and “asking lots of questions” as part of its leadership development offerings. Telenor’s aim was to increase employees’ self-awareness and learning, challenge existing work processes, and support employees in going beyond comfort zones. Similarly, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella ignited a culture of curiosity and continuous learning through organization-wide growth mindset initiatives that help employees shift from being a group of “know-it-alls” to a group of “learn-it-alls.” Daily pulse surveys are used to gather metrics on growth mindset indicators such as risk aversion, learning from failure, or unlocking potential. Employees’ efforts to cultivate a work-related growth mindset nurture their drive, dedication, concentration, and absorption in work-related activities. In turn, their engagement is heightened, and learning and growth are catalyzed.
The four attributes of curiosity help explain how these important effects arise.
Four Attributes of Curiosity
Curiosity is generally recognized as a catalyst of human behavior and an ingredient in the pursuit of meaningful living. Dr. Todd Kashdan describes curiosity in terms of four attributes: inquisitiveness, openness, creative problem solving and disruption tolerance (see Figure 1).
Figure 1: Four Attributes of Curiosity
Inquisitiveness means leaving preconceived ideas behind and using inquiry to discover new insights and perspectives about complex issues. This helps people reframe and more deeply understand the challenge at hand, including the current situation, the desired outcome, and the resources required to reach that outcome. Inquisitiveness also is evident when employees look beyond conventional career goals to deeply reflect on the experiences, activities, and outcomes they enjoy and find valuable at work. By doing so, they are more likely to discover their unique definition of success and be better equipped to navigate their careers accordingly. Companies that do not support inquisitiveness risk employee disengagement and turnover. Quantum Workplace’s 2014 study of high-turnover companies found that the second-highest-rated issue in employee engagement was the organization’s lack of willingness to “listen to an employee’s perspectives.”
Openness means entertaining ideas, even if they are from other companies, industries, or sources. Leaders demonstrate openness when they consider how to boost employees’ sense of meaning using progressive management approaches such as experiential training programs, events, or workshops that ignite a sense of play and nonconformist thinking. Openness to experience is the drive for cognitive exploration of one’s inner world, and for gathering and making meaning of new information in one’s environment. Research has shown that openness to experience is more highly correlated with total creative achievement than other factors historically correlated with creative achievement such as IQ, divergent thinking, and personality traits.
Creative problem solving occurs when employees challenge and cross-pollinate existing knowledge and approaches with new ideas. Research demonstrates that framing work around learning goals (e.g., skill development) rather than performance goals (e.g., hitting targets) boosts motivation. Those motivated by learning goals tend to acquire a greater diversity of skills, do better in problem-solving, and log better work performance, although organizations generally prioritize performance goals, according to Harvard behavioral scientist Francesca Gino. Leaders can counteract this trend by advocating for the importance of learning and by rewarding people both for their performance and the learning needed to get there. Organizations with a healthy learning culture are reported to be (a) 92 percent more likely to develop novel products and processes, (b) 52 percent more productive, and (c) 17 percent more profitable than organizations that do not embrace a learning culture. Research from Deloitte additionally indicates that engagement and retention rates are 30 to 50 percent higher in organizations with a strong learning culture.
People have disruption tolerance when they are able to stay with new solutions through the highs and lows of fully vetting a solution until lessons are able to be identified, codified, and applied. Although many people may notice opportunities and wonder about possible solutions, Kashdan and colleagues explain that disruption tolerance is needed to motivate those individuals to “step forward and explore.” Disruption tolerance, also referred to as stress tolerance, is evident when failure is allowed as a mechanism for learning, growth, and creativity. Intuit supports disruption tolerance through its annual awards: In addition to innovation awards for employee explorations leading to valuable new products or processes, failure awards are given for employee explorations leading to important learnings for the team (absent new products). Moreover, failure parties are held to celebrate the learnings.
Putting Curiosity into Practice
In general, it takes practice to become more aware of curiosity and how to use it in various situations. The following sample exercises are designed to help access and harness a curious mindset.
Exercise 1: Reflection
At the end of each day, write down how you used your curiosity in ways that contributed to a positive or productive outcome. After two weeks, review what you wrote each day. What patterns do you see? What insights about your use of curiosity surfaced for you? How can these insights help you in the future to connect your curiosity to professional growth and/or to higher satisfaction in your work? Create your curiosity action plan in which you identify three actions you will continue to practice to encourage your curious mindset.
Alternately, contemplate the following questions:
- How does your curiosity show up in your work?
- In what ways can you employ a curious mindset to foster more meaningful connection to others?
- In what ways can you reframe a challenge into a learning opportunity?
- What blocks or interferes with your curiosity? What could you do to remove these obstacles?
Identify one “stop” behavior that prevents or interferes with your curiosity, and one “start” behavior that encourages you to remain curious. For one month, keep a journal tracking your progress of consistently discontinuing your stop and implementing your start behavior. If at the end of the month you feel satisfied with your progress, identify a new stop behavior and a new start behavior and track your progress for another month. Each month, you can select a new start behavior and new stop behavior or return to practicing a previous start behavior and stop behavior.
Exercise 2: Reframing
Select a perceived business issue or problem and organize a meeting to briefly present the problem to your team or cross-functional group. Then instruct the group that they have 4 minutes to collaboratively generate 15 different questions reframing the problem. The aim of this step is not to solve the problem but to uncover, through different ways of wording it, whether an alternative problem exists whose resolution would be even more organizationally valuable. After the initial 4 minutes, take another 20 minutes to identify any additional questions missing from the 15-question set created. Then, using the entire question set, select which questions specifically identified new pathways in viewing the problem, and highlight why each pathway seems important or meaningful. Setting aside what might be the most comfortable route to pursue, commit to investigating at least one of the pathways and create an action plan for doing so.
Curiosity acts as a catalyst for exploration and fosters absorption, dedication, enthusiasm, and learning. Exploration of difﬁcult, challenging, or complex situations may seem a paradoxical route to greater meaning in work. However, curiosity can serve as a motivational engine for individuals to better understand, utilize, and build their competencies to more successfully navigate their work environment and contribute in meaningful ways to both the workplace and their communities beyond themselves.
Suggestions for Further Reading
- Arnone, M. P., Small, R. V., Chauncey, S. A., & McKenna, H. P. (2011). Curiosity, interest and engagement in technology-pervasive learning environments: A new research agenda. Educational Technology Research and Development, 59(2), 181–198 doi:10.1007/s11423-011-9190-9.
- Kashdan, T. B., & Steger, M. F. (2007). Curiosity and stable and dynamic pathways to wellness: Traits, states, and every-day behaviors. Motivation and Emotion, 31, 159–173.
- Rosso, B., Dekas, K., & Wrzesniewski, A. (2010). On the meaning of work: A theoretical integration and review. Research in Organizational Behavior, 30, 91-127
- Hill, P., Turiano, N., Mroczek, D. K., & Burrow, A. L. (2016). The value of a purposeful life: Sense of purpose predicts greater income and net worth. Journal of Research in Personality, 65, 38 – 42