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Curiosity at work is appreciated—as long as it's used wisely

A series of studies conducted by Harvard Business Review has shown that this attribute can be a double-edged sword in the workplace; as for managers, it can be both useful and a source of annoyance

Published: Nov 29, 2023 04:06:22 PM IST
Updated: Nov 29, 2023 04:12:34 PM IST

Curiosity at work is appreciated—as long as it's used wiselyCurious people who demonstrate a certain political shrewdness in the workplace are better perceived than those who lack it. Image: Campaign Creators / Unsplash©

Curiosity is a trait that job seekers often highlight in their CVs or cover letters. But a series of studies conducted by Harvard Business Review has shown that this attribute can be a double-edged sword in the workplace; as for managers it can be both useful and a source of annoyance.

To reach this conclusion, an American research team conducted three separate experiments. The first involved over 900 employees and leaders working for three companies in different sectors (human resources, sales and service, manufacturing); the second involved 400 master's students; and the third involved 528 working people employed in two companies, one specializing in information technology and the other in management consulting.

These three studies sought to assess how curiosity is perceived in the professional sphere. All three studies indicated that employees with this personality trait are often seen by their supervisors as insubordinate. This negative view tends to dissipate, however, when the curious are able to demonstrate a certain political acumen in the workplace.

But what exactly does that mean? People who are "politically skilled" at work know how to adapt to their professional environment by taking into account the expectations of others, while expressing their expectations in a constructive way. Although it sometimes gets conflated with being manipulative, this form of social awareness requires diplomacy, initiative and... curiosity.

Curiosity should be expressed in a constructive manner

Researchers at the Harvard Business Review wanted to get a better idea of the importance of political acumen—and by extension, curiosity—in the office by asking several study participants to judge the attitude of a fictional character named Alex. Depending on the scenario, Alex is either naturally curious or politically skilled. In the former case, he is described as someone who likes to ask questions to solve the problems he faces in his day-to-day professional life. In the second, Alex is an outgoing, social person whose communication skills help him bond with his colleagues.

Also read: Curiosity, not coding: 6 skills leaders need in the digital age


The researchers found that the participants judged "curious Alex" much more harshly: they found him far more insubordinate than his "politically skilled" alter ego. They found that his behavior was less likely to be perceived as constructive or contributing to the effectiveness of his organization, the academics outlinede, adding that the "curious Alex" seemed less likeable than his namesake.

Are the findings of these studies confirmation that curiosity does indeed kill the cat, as the saying goes, meaning it's a trait that will get you into trouble? Not necessarily. Curiosity is viewed as annoying when it's not channeled. Asking incessant questions during a meeting won't necessarily help get you in the good books of your boss, unless you do so in a constructive way. It's important to observe and listen to make sure you understand the unspoken rules at play within your company. In this way, you can ensure that your curiosity is perceived as a valuable trait.

Meanwhile, managers need to encourage their teams' curiosity. They shouldn't see it as a form of interference, but rather as a "soft skill" that will help them enrich their knowledge and solve complex problems. Provided, of course, that they can express such curiosity, without fear of reprisal.

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