Culture, Engagement, Branding, Hiring & Recruiting

Curiosity Belongs at Work

My daughter is 3 years old, so the word “Why?” is a frequent flyer in her vocabulary. While irksome, I do my best to answer her with honesty. Why? Because I want her to be curious. I want her to naturally learn about the world around her, even if it means diving into a “Why?” black hole.

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My adoration for curiosity extends into my role as Director of Culture + People for Square Root, an Austin start-up. I’ve interviewed hundreds of candidates throughout the years, and one of the most common questions for me is “What are you looking for in a candidate?” Forever included in my list is curiosity.

To echo my daughter, why?

All too often, both professionally and personally, we stick with the status quo, bat an idea out of the sky before it has a chance to grow wings, or make an assumption about the person next to us. Curiosity propels us to learn about ideas, concepts, and even people. As stated in a recent Harvard Business Review article,  “The Business Case for Curiosity”: “When our curiosity is triggered, we think more deeply and rationally about decisions and come up with more-creative solutions.”

To innovate and evolve at work, we need curiosity. And good news, to quote one of my favorite authors, Elizabeth Gilbert, “Curiosity is available to everyone.”

Nurture It by Asking Questions, All the Time

It seems simple, but it’s hard in practice. Try beginning with “What if,” and let a thought flutter to the rest of the room. Once in the universe, questions take on a life of their own, and collaboration shapes questions into action. Last year, a colleague, Emily, asked: “What if we had a mentorship program?” We didn’t know what it would take or how it would work. She brought in our colleague, Rachel, and together the two of them designed the In Your Shoes program within an hour.

In Your Shoes pairs two individuals as “solemates.” The perfect match meets regularly to learn about each other’s careers, lives, and current roles. It works because collaboration isn’t aided by just questioning the work; it’s sculpted by the relationships around the work. In addition to fostering deeper relationships across the company, the program has led to internal transfers and promotions.

Curiosity shouldn’t start or stop with one person—it takes an intentional effort to build it. To do so in your company, there are two key steps for HR leaders: hire for it and nurture it.

Nab the Naturally Inquisitive Ones

During interviews, I seek the “forever learners” in the bunch. Companies ebb and flow, needs fade or expand, and I want someone who’s perpetually curious about how to have an impact. I gauge curiosity in interviews with three things: (1) Do they ask me questions? (2) Have they produced results on a project they’re passionate about? (3) Do their eyes light up when I ask them what they’d like to learn?

To pique the interest of those forever learners, Square Root offers $3,000 annually to each individual to Learn Anything. Whether it’s scuba diving or a conference, we place a premium on pushing the boundaries of what you know. We’ve picked this benefit over others because it encapsulates the team we want—the naturally inquisitive ones. We want individuals who think of and ask the important questions.

The important questions take a thought and flip it on its head. It’s my daughter turning and twisting Legos to get it just right, and then taking it apart to see if she can improve upon it. It’s asking: “What would happen if…? What would it take to try…? How could we impact the business?” Or even “What are we not thinking of?”

If curiosity feels paralyzing, it can be. It can lead down tangents, hinder an intuitive decision, or be ineffective at producing useful details. In speaking with colleagues, the main gripe with curiosity is that the wild desire to collect—knowledge, ideas, and experiences—leaves one feeling indecisive or overwhelmed. Collectors of information crave opportunities to share and archive their knowledge.

Make Curiosity Part of Your Culture Code

At Square Root, we hold monthly hobby-sharing sessions inspired by Pinterest called Knitting. Each month, an individual on our team shares one of their passions, such as poetry, fostering puppies, or raising chickens. It’s an opportunity for the “collectors” on our team to share (with vulnerability) something important to them. It also builds empathy and fosters a sense of wonder in our office.

As a child, my family would take turns at our telescope musing over just what stars are. My interest waned many moons ago until an astrophysicist on our team, John, shared his dissertation on black holes at Knitting. For a moment in time, my wonder of space reemerged.

These moments craft curiosity in a nonthreatening way. The next time we’re in a meeting, and not sure if we’re on the right track, it’s that much easier to ask “Why?” And for our collectors, it gives them a network of experts and tames their pull for wild curiosity.

To make space for the wild, though, we hold quarterly “Hackathons” to give folks a chance to tinker and chase down their What If ideas or explore a project not yet greenlighted by their manager. The dive into curiosity breeds unconventional partnerships and often unearths the wacky ideas we didn’t know we needed. Many What Ifs evolved into polished client presentations and additions to our product.

Curiosity means questioning the norm and learning about new ideas and people. If you’re a manager, you’re crucial to this curiosity emerging.

Don’t Shoot Down Ideas

Come from a place of wanting to say yes or “What If” to an idea. Rejecting curiosity will crush it and the souls behind it. You’ll potentially lose folks, or they’ll become jaded and stop questioning, which is a miss for everyone. I’m a manager and a mom, so I know that the urge to say “That’s just the way it is” is a strong one, but is it worth dissolving an individual’s curiosity?

With my daughter, her inquisitive spirit sparks an awe for all the world’s creatures, including bees. Bees! It takes every piece of my being to not flinch when we spot a bee. That’s a bit like what being a manager is when guiding curiosity. Might be scary, but you don’t want to squash the “Why?” or the bee. They’re good for the earth and the first step to something better.

Courtney BransonIf you ask her, Courtney Branson is the cheerleader of the company; but really, she’s the glue that keeps Square Root together. She handles a little bit of everything but is especially good at HR and employee relations. Prior to joining Square Root, Courtney spent several years in HR operations at really large companies, so she brings welcome structure to our rapidly expanding team. No matter what she’s working on, Courtney adds a creative touch—keeping employee morale high and company events interesting. She knows just what it takes to pull the best out of people and isn’t above the occasional need for coffee/whiskey/cookie bribery. Courtney has a degree in English with minors in philosophy and history from Texas A&M University.