Stefaan van Hooydonk on the Culture of Curiosity at Workplace

Stefaan van Hooydonk on the Culture of Curiosity at Workplace
Those managers who are good at inviting curiosity in the team, actually have been found to have more engaged and more productive teams, are better at continuous improvement, and are better at suggesting workable solutions for their customers.

Interaction With Stefaan van Hooydonk Founder- Global Curiosity Institute on the Culture of Curiosity at Workplace

Stefaan is the founder of the Global Curiosity Institute and author of The Workplace Curiosity Manifesto. He consults global corporations and leadership teams to build stronger curiosity muscles.

Stefaan started his career in investment consulting in China. From there he moved to set up the executive education arm of a major business school in Shanghai, China Europe International Business School (CEIBS), which he ran for 5 years. Subsequently, he moved to the corporate side and set up global learning teams and innovative corporate universities for Nokia (China/Finland), Agfa Healthcare (Belgium), Philips (the Netherlands), Flipkart (India), Saudi Aramco (Saudi Arabia) and Cognizant (UK).

His last role was that of Chief Learning Officer for Cognizant, where he oversaw learning and development for over 300k associates across the globe. He has been globally recognised for his innovative approach to learning, people, and technology.

Q- What’s the buzz lately with curiosity?

Recently, the world of business has woken up that the tricks of the 20th century will only get us that far. A realisation has awoken that better and deeper new questions need to be asked and new answers found to these new questions Covid has made this crystal clear: the world is a vulnerable place.

We thought we had everything under control, and then covid happened. Those companies (and individuals) who had kept their (curiosity muscle) strong thrived while other players in the same industry barely survived.

The 21st century is the century of ideas (the 20th century was the century of big corporations). Scale and size nowadays is less important than ideas.

Look for instance at Marriott vs Airbnb. It took Marriott 80 years to amass 700k beds, while it took Airbnb only 4 years (and their market cap is double). The century of ideas means that for companies to thrive in fast-changing environments, they need to embrace a mindset of openness and exploration: in short: curiosity.

With the book I just wrote, I wanted to distill curiosity into its essence, get best practices, and help biz leaders of start-ups, scale-ups, and grown-up organisations to get ahead of the curve.

Q- How would you define curiosity?

My definition is that curiosity is the mindset to challenge the status quo, explore, discover and learn. This definition relates to individuals and also larger systems such as teams and organisations.

What I have found is that the definition people have depends on the (sub) group they find themselves in. In some groups, curiosity is seen as something negative, in others it is celebrated.

The negative dimension we ascribe to curiosity is actually a pre-1950s mindset: before 1950, curiosity was all about nosy children poking their noses into things they had no affairs with, after 1950, the connotation of curiosity has become a much more positive as it links to science, discovery, exploration, entrepreneurship,… 

It is important to observe that our daily language has a big role to play in how we embrace curiosity: e.g. in Poland, they say: ‘curiosity is the first step to hell’ or In English: ‘curiosity killed the cat’. Productive curiosity is the type of curiosity we need in the workplace.

It is intentional, it is (growth mindset in action.) In my research, the overwhelming connotation of curious professionals is someone who not only creates new ideas but also someone who stands in line to do something with her/his idea.

It is interesting also to explore the opposite when looking for a definition: for curiosity, this is conformity. Conformity is always the base position we are drawn towards. Conformity gives us peace of mind and a sense of predictability. It also helps us not to have to think about all the things we take for granted.

There is nothing wrong with conformity, only it becomes dangerously limiting the moment we are not aware of it anymore and blindly take it for granted. Curiosity requires force, intentionality, and proactive behaviour to pull yourself away from conformity. In that process of pulling, you can explore learning and growth.

Some people don’t do this because fear being pulled away from thoughts, ideas, and titles, they feel comfortable with.

Lastly: curiosity is not only about being inquisitive about the external world, it is also about being curious about others  (empathic curiosity). Furthermore, curiosity is also about being curious about one’s own internal drivers, values, beliefs, and even limiting beliefs and biases. I call this self-reflective or intrapersonal curiosity.

I would say that self-reflective curiosity is often the most important, yet most difficult, application. Curiosity about the world leads to creativity and innovation/curiosity about others leads to empathy and better interpersonal relationships. Finally, curiosity about self leads to resilience and happiness.

Q- What can people or organisations do to get better at it?

I describe in my book how both professionals, leaders, but also systems like teams and organisations can become more curious:

  • If you want a short version: I’d say focus on “A.I.M.” (1) Become Aware, (2) Be Intentional and (3) Measure Success.  First, become aware of how you show up as a leader or a professional: do you show up with judgment or with curiosity (judgment is conformity to one’s preconceived ideas), how aware are you about your curiosity of the world/ others/self. Second: intentionality.  Try to make your curiosity intentional and third: measure you well you are doing.
  • One important step for people to get better would be to take a diagnostic: I have created a unique diagnostic measuring people’s cognitive, empathic and self-reflective curiosity. it is free for people to take on

Q- How is a curious professional different from an incurious one?

We intuitively associate curiosity with people suggesting/sharing novel ideas as well as people looking for new experiences. Nowadays in knowledge-intensive work environments, there is no manual anymore describing every step of the way people can follow without thinking.

On the contrary, companies are looking for employees who show up curiously at work, employees who are deeply and intentionally curious about their customers, curious about their competition, their products, and growing their own knowledge base.

I should add one dimension that I found: real curious people are not only coming up with ideas, but they are also standing first in line to implement these ideas. I described in my book that curious professionals are more productive, better at maintaining relationships, learn faster and they ask better and deeper questions. They are also more open-minded when the environment changes.

Curious people often freeze or are reactive when there is a change at work. Curious people welcome changes with open arms. Interestingly, I have found that curious individuals make more money and make faster careers than their incurious peers.

Q- What is the role of the leader in creating curious teams?

The shadow a leader casts on the team is more important than most managers often realise. Good managers uplift the team, bad managers stifle it, and they often don’t realise it.

When I was chief learning officer at Cognizant, I was able to get some interesting insights when investigating data. My team and I looked a the correlation between the learning behavior of the leader and that of the team.

What we found is that when the leader learns a lot (reads books, articles, ebooks, takes e-courses, explores educational videos, …), and if (s)he talks about her/ his continuous learning with the team, the team will pick up that this is something important for the manager and will mimic this behavior. We found a linear correlation: the more the leader consumes learning, the more the team will consume learning.

The opposite is sadly also true. If the manager does not learn, the team will also fall flat when it comes to learning. At that point, the team (and the manager) will only do the training the company mandates. In that situation, the manager and the team don’t learn and grow.

Managers are often not aware of the impact their own behaviors have on the team. It is often good enough to highlight – preferably with data – what impact they have on them to change.

When talking about curious managers, I often talk about the concept of confident humility. the manager is humble enough to realise that (s)he does not know everything, yet he/she is not nervous about not knowing. quite the contrary. (s)he is proud of not knowing and invites the team to collectively look for answers.

Managers often feel uncomfortable not knowing – in many cultures there is a flawed perception that if the manager does not know – this is perceived as a weakness. Research has found the opposite; the more a manager says he/she does not know, the more he/she gets respect from the team.

Further, if the manager then invites the team to suggest things, engagement goes up as the team feels more ownership.

What I have found is that many managers although they say they value inquisitive minds, many prefer to work with team members who are not too curious. Many managers prefer to work with people who are obedient and conformist, who don’t ask too many questions or venture too many suggestions. Such managers think that curious employees are difficult to manage and hold the team back.

Those managers who are good at inviting curiosity in the team, actually have been found to have more engaged and more productive teams, are better at continuous improvement, and are better at suggesting workable solutions for their customers.

Q. What is the role of HR in creating a curiosity culture?

HR has an important role to play in guiding the culture and climate of the company. Those HR teams that are intentional about curiosity are doing much better than those who leave curiosity to chance, or even worse those who stifle curiosity through their processes and practices.

HR has also an important say in shaping the values of the company and making sure that curiosity is included. Curious employees need curious companies to thrive, yet 78% of professionals say that their companies are creating barriers to curiosity at work.

When working with HR teams, I often encourage teams to (1) define productive curiosity (in many cultures curiosity has also negative connotations) and (2) reflect on the application of the concept of curiosity across their processes. For instance: on the scale between conformity and curiosity: how well are we embracing curiosity in recruiting, onboarding, promoting, rewarding, and offboarding,… our employees.

This often compels these teams to start improvement journeys. (note: the ideal scale position should be in the middle: companies need both conformity and curiosity) Something to think about: there is a 90% growth in the use of the word ‘curiosity’ in online recruiting adverts.

Thank you, Stefaan!


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