Curiosity Killed the Cat

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The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity.                                        — Dorothy Parker

In my last post, I wrote about how curious and open people are invaluable to your team.  I made a strong case for hiring people who are intellectually curious and open to new ideas – avid for them, even. But are there times when a curious person is not the ideal addition to your team?  The answer is yes.

I’m defining curiosity as the ability, perhaps even the need, to ask “what if” questions and the strong desire to carry them through. What if we changed the way we do things? What would happen if we made the product blue instead of red? What if you could access the internet on your phone? ‘What if’ questions are the basis for innovation; they’re what make new breakthroughs possible in every industry and endeavor.

But ‘What if’ employees are almost always disruptors, and that sometimes makes them, well, disruptive. A number of important tasks and professions are actually worse off when a curious person takes on that role. The kind of intensely curious and creative people who thrive in technology firms in Silicon Valley, for example, may bring on a complete financial sector meltdown when they get creative with accounting practices or financial products on Wall Street. (Does that ring a bell?)

With good reason, some work calls for emphatically uncurious types.  Here’s when you’re smart to screen out curious and creative types.

  • When the work must be replicated over and over, with zero margin for error. Curious people will tinker with the system; they can’t help wondering what might happen if you tweak a step or change a process. That’s bad for jobs where precision and accountability matter more than making things quicker, easier or more customer-friendly. (But knowing which processes MUST be the same, and which just make you more comfortable as they are, is an art form most companies haven’t mastered.)
  • When the work requires intense focus for long periods of time. I say this with love to my fellow curious peeps: we tend to get bored easily with repetitious tasks. It’s not long before we start thinking about other things or lured by the siren call of the phone, an email ping, or really, just about anything else.
  • When the only defense against temptation is common sense. (Again, apologies, but science is on my side.) It’s a story as old as Adam; social scientists call it the Pandora Effect. We are told not to do something, because bad things will happen. But we do it anyway. For the curious, temptation is almost impossible to resist, even when we experience negative consequences from giving in (just like the proverbial cat.)

Researchers tested a group’s propensity to experiment with pens. Pens marked in green would not deliver a mild electric shock. Pens marked in red always delivered a shock. Pens marked in yellow distributed shocks randomly. The study concluded that subjects far preferred the uncertain outcomes; they clicked much more often to find out what happened than when they knew the outcome – even the safe outcome. We simply can’t resist.

In the workplace, a curious person’s need for stimulation may lead to gossip, snooping, or seeking out information you may prefer to keep quiet. Curious people are interested in everything, even what isn’t necessarily their business. Inquiring minds want to know, and they may awake curiosity in others, which isn’t always conducive to productivity.

If you’re in a small, nimble company, like a startup, you’ll find curious people to be your best asset. But when steady focus and consistent results matter most, curiouser isn’t necessarily better.

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