I recently spoke with a CEO about his workforce. He felt his team wasn't very motivated and asked me what would prove more effective: rewards or threats? Before I could answer, I asked some questions: What did his workers like? How did they spend their spare time? Did they all eat lunch together or separately? He couldn't answer any of these questions, which told me exactly what was wrong.

This executive needs to know who works for him. Curiosity is one of the most appealing human characteristics. When you're curious about someone, you imply that he is interesting and valuable. More fundamentally, you prove to him that he exists and that you know it. Everyone at work wants to feel that he counts, that he is valued, and that others are interested in him. After all, why should an employee be interested in the business if the business isn't interested in him? Being curious about someone is the easiest and most basic way of saying that you notice and care. This all sounds simple but many executives are too busy to ever do it.

So I gave this CEO some homework:

  1. Find out 10 things about your employees that you could not find on their resumes
  2. Learn the names of each of their spouses or significant others
  3. Find out how many pets belong to your workforce
  4. See if you can find out one book each team member has recently read
  5. Identify a favorite food (or drink) that each person likes

The results of this assignment were nothing short of extraordinary. First of all, the CEO came back to me with more enthusiasm and respect for his team than he'd ever shown before. He had far more creative ideas about how to motivate them (and no more grim talk about sticks and carrots). He understood his company better: what excited them, drove them, and connected with them.

But he also observed that, after he'd taken this initiative, it sounded as though people were talking to each other more than ever before. His curiosity had stimulated them. And as people connected to one another, they felt they belonged to something.

Most entrepreneurs start their companies because they're curious about the world. Often that has led them to see things others missed. But they get so caught up in the nitty gritty of daily operations that their peripheral vision grows progressively narrower until they can't see the people in front of them. Until something, or someone, makes them change.

What would happen if you did this homework?