A recent poll asked bosses if they valued and encouraged creativity. A healthy 64 percent said yes. Then the pollsters talked to their employees. Does the boss actually like it when you're curious and innovative, they wanted to know. You can almost feel the eye rolls in the data -- just 42 percent agreed their boss wanted them to be creative.
Many leaders, in other words, pay lip service to values like openness, innovation, and curiosity, but find that, in practice, they're a pain in the neck. Who wants to endlessly explain things to curious employees? Won't trying new ideas lower productivity? And how do you even get a bunch of free spirits all pulling in the same direction?
The result is the all too common phenomenon of a boss who praises curiosity and creativity and then reacts negatively when anyone actually displays these qualities.
You say you value curiosity, but do you really?
Harvard Business School's Francesca Gino is an expert on the phenomenon, and she recently wrote a long roundup of research on the topic for HBR. The article makes the business case for curiosity (if it's not obvious, it leads to better decisions, happier collaboration, and more communication), as well as offering tons of suggestions for how to stop being a curiosity-killing boss.
The long list of ideas is exhaustive, but it also seemed like it could be overwhelming for those at the helm of smaller businesses, so I emailed Gino to get her advice on which actions offer the biggest bang for the buck for time-strapped small-business owners.
"In small business it is even more important for the leader to model curiosity for others," she stressed before offering two simple but powerful suggestions.
1. Ask more and better questions.
Many bosses say they have an open-door policy for employees, but saying you value your team's input isn't enough. You actually have to walk out that open door and solicit that input with thoughtful questions. Gino gives the example of Max Zanardi, the manager of a luxury hotel in Turkey, whom she wrote about in her book, Rebel Talent.
"The hotel's employees attribute their passion to the way that Zanardi encouraged them to always ask questions. Zanardi regularly challenged employees to redefine luxury by asking 'Why?' and 'What if?'," she notes.
"For example, each year employees were used to planting flowers on the terrace right outside the hotel's restaurant," she continues. But one year Zanardi showed up with a few of his trademark questions: Why always plant flowers? How about vegetables? What about herbs? "The conversation eventually led to a terrace garden full of herbs and heirloom tomatoes that were used in the hotel's acclaimed restaurant," Gino reports.
2. Help employees broaden their horizons.
It's hard to maintain curiosity when you're doing the same thing day in and day out like a robot. That's why Gino also suggests that, in addition to modeling curiosity, bosses should also try to help broaden employees' interests.
"Take Osteria Francescana -- the restaurant that became the best restaurant in the world in 2016 and then again this year. The chef and owner is Massimo Bottura," she offered. "Once a week, Bottura asks his team members to cook a dish from their own culture for the rest of the staff. This tradition allows the person cooking to tell their stories, and expose everybody to different ways of using the same ingredients," she relates.
"And one morning, while part of the staff was polishing the dishes and cutlery (something they do every morning), an intern with a degree in art history showed them pictures of various paintings and explained why each artist created the painting. Why? Because Bottura kept asking him to be who he was, bringing more of himself into work. And given his background, that's what the intern had come up with."
Cooking and art history lectures might not work for your business (though pretty much everyone loves a good potluck lunch), but the basic principle can be applied to any team. Creativity feeds on newness and authenticity, so any way you can think of to stir learning and genuine expressions of personality into the day is going to help your people be more curious. It will also make them more willing to come to you with whatever brilliant idea that curiosity sparks in them.
Are you really encouraging curiosity and creativity, or just saying you do?