This text is intended for those who are already familiar with the research on the role of curiosity in organization. My only goal with this text is to be given non-Swedish speaking people with in-depth knowledge about curiosity in organizations and at work an idea of what my contribution could be to the field.
Summary and structure of the book
The world is facing enormous challenges. Social, economic, and environmental sustainability are some of the most important issues of our time. We are in the midst of major systemic and structural changes in society. The labor market is changing. The climate issue is gigantic. We have just crossed the threshold into the fourth industrial revolution. We need the ability to ask hard questions today more than ever.
My goal is to popularize the complex subject of curiosity in organizations and to make it easily accessible to a larger group with the hope of creating a better workplace. I want to push beyond the obvious and at the same time avoid a non-nuanced, simplified understanding of curiosity and organizations. I want to contribute to the kind of workplace where people feel secure, have higher self-esteem, and are seen as individuals – so they can create powerful, sustainable organizations.
The book has a strong HOW-TO emphasis. It should be possible for the reader to practice what they have learned after reading the book. The lion’s share of the book consists of 5 obstacles for curiosity to form a normative culture in the organization and 21 themes for how to get there. The research-based knowledge of curiosity and research on the role of curiosity in organizations has been successively woven into the main text.
In addition to this, there is a chapter that describes the history of curiosity, leading up to its role in a society that is both complex and uncertain.
What my contribution to the field could be
The need for difficult, meaningful problems to keep curious minds in organizations
We need local, difficult, meaningful problems to keep our curious minds, says one of the CEOs I interviewed. These words have become a guide for me throughout this work. This company managed to create a culture where problems become a fuel that both attracts curious individuals, gives them opportunity to develop as individuals, and makes them want to stay in the organization. The organization has turned complexity, surprise, and uncertainty to its advantage. The CEO and higher management see it as their job to ensure that the organization is challenged to a sufficient extent and in that way pushes itself forward by taking on difficult meaningful challenges. This is changing the narrative both on the notion of “problems/challenges” and brings curiosity into the core value of an organizations “Why.” But this also means that the top management works actively to get solution-oriented employees to stay longer with puzzles, challenges, and problems. With people who really want to learn, move, change, and improve, people who are at their best when they are finding solutions. The leadership needs to ensure that the organization stays in chaotic complexity a little longer. It is a management issue to make sure that employees remain in the exploratory state a little longer.
A central employee value proposition – with risks
Curiosity has gradually become an outspoken positive trait in recruitment. Especially for high-cognition work. More and more organizations describe in their external communications that they are at the forefront in their sector. How they challenge the status quo. How they are innovative and wish to disrupt an industry. This is how they want to be perceived, and this becomes the tonality of employee branding. It creates expectations about the organization among prospective employees: “your desire to learn new things, try, test, develop will be given space.” This is experienced both as a core value and a central employee value proposition, and if it is not fulfilled there is disappointment and dissatisfaction, which leads to curious individuals quitting and moving on to other adventures. One interviewee expresses it this way: I applied for this position because I like challenges, want to learn new things, solve problems, develop myself and the organization – now we are so slimmed down that there is never room for any new thoughts. From an organizational point of view, it would be possible to reflect on this issue from a classic “exploration vs exploitation” perspective.
The Law of Jante – a curse or blessing?
The Law of Jante is a fictional law formulated by Aksel Sandemose in the book A Refugee Crosses His Track, first published in 1933. Jante is about an oppressive mentality in a small community. Jante is a village where no external oppressor is needed. The people themselves hold each other down, the collectives oppresses the individual. The Law of Jante as written by Sandemose is a paraphrase of the biblical 10 commandments. But it can actually be seen as a diagnosis of a society where the pressure to conform is very strong. This raises a question: How does the alleged Swedish Jante-mentality consisting of jealousy, pettiness, peer pressure, and the resulting poor self-confidence fit with a high innovativeness? Sweden is the second most innovative country in the world according to the Global Innovation Index (2021) with Finland and Denmark among the top 10 countries. In relation to its population, no other country has produced as many revolutionary innovations as Sweden (Berggren & Krutmeijer, 2023).
What effect does the Law of Jante have on our common culture? One idea is that we may have benefited greatly from putting into words something we do not like. For 90 years now we have been able to identify and discuss a cultural, collective, conformist culture. Having a word (“Jante”) and a clear shared description of the problem may have served as a tool and helped us overcome the challenges involved when a social context or organization suffers from pettiness, internal competition, and group thinking.
In the small town where I grew up (Arvika, near the Norwegian border) there is a pile of stones called the “Jante pile.” We have the tradition that we put a stone on the pile each year to remind us not to inhibit each other. It appears to be an unsustainable, if not absurd idea, that there should be a moral code or special Swedish mentality that can be described as “Jante.” On the other hand, we see how hatred of the deviant, the different, is constantly present in groups and in societies around the world. It could be possible to argue that Aksel Sandemose gave us awareness of the bad sides of conformity and that the Law of Jante is actually a blessing rather than a curse.
Inverted 20-80 rule, using curiosity for convergence, stability and robustness
Some companies, mainly in the tech-sector allows employees to spend 20 percent of their working time on their own projects. This 20 percent is seen as an investment in creating new ideas inside the organization. The purpose is to bring creativity and divergence into the business. Although the veracity of the 20/80 rule in the tech industry has been questioned, it can serve as an example of how curiosity is given space and then supports creative, divergent actions with the aim of creating something new. I have seen another model at work.
One of the companies I interviewed allows interested employees to spend 20 percent of their working time on support functions that are needed in the organization. This is how it works: The company’s job is to ensure that the electricity, water, and heating works in the houses they manage. 70 percent of the employees are operating technicians. In some sense this is a job that dominated by routine. For many years, this company bought support services such as IT support, leadership training, mentorship, coaching, and so on from external service subcontractors.
Then this organization began considering whether these skills were actually already present inside the organization. They also asked themselves how their employees would feel about shifting their work part-time to more cognitively demanding assignments, and whether they would enjoy working on something beside their core assignments one day every week. Today there are over 300 people who are involved in some kind of assignment in addition to that which is not directly connected to their occupational profile. ”We have mentors, conversation leaders, process leaders, wellness ambassadors, computer support, and much more from inside our own organization. We have 36 digital ambassadors with a special interest in digitization and helping others work with the digital services we use. It is a way of building development into our culture.” It takes its starting point in curiosity and the idea that curiosity creates well-being. This builds on the idea that these individuals are curious, and when it’s possible for them to use 20 precent of their working time for these assignments it gave them an opportunity to develop a craving for new information. Another advantage is that it raises well-being. It is important to note here that this model mainly supports stability and converges. It makes the organization more robust. Another effect of the model is that knowledge is spread in the organization in a faster and more efficient way, which also makes the organization as a whole more agile. I believe this offers an interesting view on curiosity in organizations and at work, an alternative to the narrative that curiosity leads to instability.
The fatigue paradox in Sweden
There is an emphasis in the research on curiosity in organizations on what constitutes obstacles for collective movement towards something unknown and what stands in the way of employees acting curious and taking wise risks, trying things out, thinking big. Some obstacles arise from the legacy of industrialism, strong hierarchies, a high a degree of conformism, too much focus on efficiency, too low a degree of psychological safety. Despite the knowledge of the role that mistakes and failures play in learning, it is difficult in practice to create a culture where negative information is shared within the organization. My contribution to our understanding of these obstacles could be a reflection on a certain kind of tiredness, fatigue that is involved here.
Managers, employees, organizations even society as whole are tired of the pandemic, of the war in Ukraine, of people quitting their jobs, and the need to recruit new people. They are tired of trying to find new employees, which is difficult, and they are tired of onboarding. They are tired of people not acting like they did before and just coming to the office and behaving as they used to (new demands and values regarding how work should be done). They are tired of how new technology, new customer behavior, and new rules present new challenges – over and over again. Work and life are experienced as a Sisyphean task.
I have not seen this kind of fatigue described in curiosity research or research on curiosity in organizations as an obstacle. My interpretation is that it is a form of paradox – When we are most tired due to constant change, uncertainty, and surprise, we need to be most awake and alert. As one of my interviewees says: This kind of fatigue lowers all steps in any direction – it shuts people down. Then the individual may end up in a situation where she is not even aware that there is a need to explore the outside world with curiosity.
This special kind of fatigue, as I see it, needs to be distinguished from, for example, stress, lack of meaning, and burn out. This corresponds or at least is close to the term “languishing” used by Corey Keyes, American sociologist and psychologist, in his opposition between “flourishing” and “languishing.” Adam Grant popularizes this in a 2021 New York Times article: “You’re not depressed; you still have hope. You’re not burned out; you still have energy. But you feel a little bit aimless and a little bit joyless.” It is that sense of emptiness and stagnation. Also Seth Goldenberg writes on this ”The pursuit of meaning will be the antidote to the state of languishing we are all experiencing.” (Radical Curiosity, 2022). Seth Goldenberg use the expression Aliveness witch also corresponds with the evolutionary explanation of `seeking system’. It is described as our natural impulse to investigate the world. Learning as much as possible about the surrounding environment has brought benefits to us. Not least, it has increased our chances of survival. Humans are are designed to always strive, learn, to create and develop – that what’s makes us feel alive (Alive at work 2019).
My interpretation is that this kind of fatigue does not exclude a will or understanding for the need to learn new things, test, or explore. There is a high awareness that ”I should be curious – but a just don’t have the energy” which creates poor self-confidence and a negative relationship to curiosity. The insight is about how the need to learn new things is a stress factor in life. It is, as I see it, something personal but also something collective. The fatigue paradox is something that poses an organizational challenge and a challenge for nurturing curiosity in organizations. This model of thinking does not see conformity as the opposite of curiosity. It offers a alternative point of view: not being content with what is, but not having the energy to ask important questions or questioning the status quo. The individual and the organization push curiosity off into the future: We will be curious in the future, during vacation, or as senior citizen, when I am given time, when I am well rested and have the energy. When everything is stable, clear, and secure.
Knowledge resistance, and curiosity
It is easy to imagine that we humans always, and in all contexts, seek and value knowledge. That it is something we do because we think we need knowledge to reach our dreams and goals. We believe knowledge gives us advantages in life, knowledge creates context, and gives us the opportunity to interpret and act. But this is not true. We all have varying degrees of knowledge resistance – we have a motivation not to absorb new knowledge. In some of us this resistance is small while in others it is very large. Knowledge resistance is not a lack of knowledge. It is the inability or unwillingness to accept available knowledge (Wikforss, 2018).
In a narrow sense, knowledge resistance is about irrational thinking that does not take into account what the research and other evidence shows in terms of how reality is constituted. Lack of knowledge can be cured with more and accurate information, but since knowledge resistance is about rejecting information that contradicts one’s own perceptions of reality, more information does not help mitigate knowledge resistance. It is possible to problematize the role curiosity has in knowledge resistance. We cannot draw the conclusion here that an internal motivation to learn new things works. The whole perception of curiosity as a guarantor of broad, critical thinking can be thrown into question based on the dynamics of knowledge resistance.
In the domain of knowledge resistance, the importance of distinguishing between knowledge and belief emerges. Beliefs are strongly linked to both group-, tribal thinking and identity. Even if the individual wants to hold on to a belief, they may want to know if the belief is true. What happens then is that there will be a battle between different desires, between the desire to protect one’s convictions, identity, or group and the desire to find out how things really are. If the individual easily distinguishes between facts, knowledge, and beliefs – it is possible for them to see the significance of both openness and curiosity.
Dan Kahan is a professor of law at Yale Law School who researches politically motivated thinking. He published what has been called the most depressing discovery about the brain ever: As we learn more about something, the risk of polarization in society increases. People want to protect their group and their own identity, and this belief creates a strong resistance to exploring evidence, to having a hunger for the unexpected, to experiencing pleasure in being surprised. This, Dan believes, is the opposite of scientific curiosity. He describes how the idea that citizens with a good ability to interpret and learn new things will lead to greater consensus is flawed and that another characteristic needs to be developed at the same pace as learning – curiosity. While we learn more about something, the desire to learn even more must develop at the same pace. We need to create an ability to challenge our beliefs. In this way, Dan Kahan offers a connection between knowledge resistance and the desire to know.
Another link between knowledge resistance and curiosity is offered by the, researchers Claire Zedelius, Madeleine Gross and Jonathan Schooler in their article “Inquisitive But Not Discerning: Deprivation Curiosity is Associated with Excessive Openness to Inaccurate Information.” They believe that an individual who has a high D-type curiosity, who quickly wants to close an information gap is likely to stick to their beliefs to a high degree. They tend to search only information that supports their belief’s which helps them to quickly close the information gap. The researchers point out that it remains to be proven whether there is a direct connection between curiosity and the willingness to reevaluate beliefs as we find new evidence.
We do not see the world as it is
In comparison with other books and the research on curiosity in organizations, I emphasize the short but powerful word “seeing.” Seeing is not limited to visual impressions, attention, or directed focus. Rather, it is about what we do with our consciousness and our time. We need to see what is important. The things that we perceive as meaningful and valuable demand our attention for a long time. Democracy, for example, requires that we manage to stay focused long enough to identify the real problems. We need to see past fanciful, short-term solutions and simplistic messages. In this context, it means that if we do not have the ability to see the world as it is, it becomes difficult to formulate questions about it. This is not about bias but rather about our human ability and inability to relate to what we do not know. In short: seeing is a tool for wondering about things more often, which is central to creating that itchy feeling that there is something new to learn. If we want to create a learning organization, the ability to see is crucial.
Part of what is involved here is the conscious will of organizations and individuals not to see things, trend and events, so-called willful blindness. Another area I describe is how difficult it is to see alternative futures where “who I am or we are today” has no place; we turn our eyes away from signs that show we need to change. A third area comes from the field of business intelligence, which I have been working in for many years, and the ability to pick up weak signals. In the book, I problematize the perception of the attention economy in relation to different types of curiosity. As I see it curiosity is the golden calf in the attention economy– for better or for worse.
Shared memories as an investment
During my work, I have met several companies that value activities that are not directly related to productivity. They invest in events and happenings in the organization that require employees to use all their senses and learn about new things together. One example is a company that has a routine of eating together. Eating together means trust (or betrayal), and cooperation and belonging recur in our collective memory, tales, and art. We know for certain that we humans have eaten together as a means of mutual cooperation for over 800,000 years.
Eating together as a method at this company of creating memories in a positive context, and they describe how these memories become dynamic. It is a strategy. They believe that by doing this they are investing in the creation of shared memories with a high degree of positive emotions related to these memories. This investment later pays of when employees collaborate and solve difficult, complex problems – they become more effective in creatively and cognitively demanding tasks. It also provides the employees knowledge about each other, which makes it possible to take advantage of everyone’s differences and experience, and build and use cognitive diversity.
Network effects and the cold start problem in knowledge networks
I follow Perry Zurn and Dani Bassett’s approach to knowledge networks. They are American academics who have been researching curiosity in their respective scientific fields. They are critical of the idea that curiosity can only be described as an internal motivation to learn. They believe that what is lost in that view of curiosity is the networks and a desire, a drive, to create relationships. They take the approach that curiosity cannot be reduced to something that only happens in the head of the individual or in our actions of trying to gather information. According to them, curiosity is a networking practice, a relational practice, something collective. It is about a capacity to connect or create connections between what I know today and what I want to know – and to build connections between different ideas, between facts and facts, experiences and experiences, people and people, and ourselves and the world. The emphasis is on creating networks of knowledge.
I extend this approach by reasoning that there can be a network effect, a cold start problem, as well as a tipping point in the construction of knowledge networks, the individual’s knowledge, and a learning organization. A network effect is achieved when the value of the network increases according to how many people are part of it. The classic example is the telephone. A person who has a phone experiences no value. If two people can call each other, the value increases – not only for the first person who had a phone, but also for the second person. If fifty people can call each other, the value is even greater. For every new person who gets access to a phone, the value for everyone in the network increases. One challenge for achieving network effects is that a critical mass is needed. The effect is not linear, but often takes the form of an exponential curve. It can be slow and difficult at the beginning, but when the number of customers, participants, or users increases value is created. For each new curious individual who becomes part of the knowledge network, the value for those already in it increases. I want to place this line of reasoning in relation to the research on curiosity in organizations, to common arguments about conformism, and to the role of the rebel. One new curious person in the organization makes it is easier for the co-workers and rebels who are already in the organization. This is a thought, a thesis.
Nordic social models and basic psychological safety
An observation made about the Swedish labor market is that the demand for high-cognitive skills is increasing, but so is the demand for low-cognitive skills. What is shrinking the most is jobs in the middle of this scale of demands for cognitive skills. Swedish organizations are operating in one of the world’s most secular countries, where the level of education is very high, and many industrial jobs have moved to low-cost countries. It is a country where everyone has a smart phone and a powerful mobile connection, a place where an individual’s job is an important part of their identity and is expected to contribute to a meaningful life.
Working life in the Nordic social models has been described as arising out of three basic pillars: 1) active states with a responsible, stability-oriented macroeconomic policy, 2) strong social partners and coordinated collective bargaining, and 3) universal welfare states contributing to income security, skill formation and labor market participation (Alsos & Dølvik, 2021).
Sweden is a country that should be able to be at the forefront of the development of a more humane working life. We have strong traditions of co-determination, consensus solutions, and leadership practices that are below the international average in authoritarian terms. The traditional hierarchical “predict and control” model has been questioned for a long time. Overall there are strong indications that not only organizations are on the way to a renewal, but also the entirety of working life (Preface to the updated edition of Reinventing Organizations by Frederic Laloux) (Laloux, 2017).
Long-term peace is one aspect that is considered to have a role here. After the Second World War, Sweden received an economic boost and rapid development took place in several different areas of society. The education capacity was insufficient, and over the years the number of universities around Sweden increased. Towards the end of the 1970s, reform work began with the aim of increasing the accessibility of higher education institutions and promoting social equality. There was a desire to get more students from different social groups into the university. The number of full-time students has increased from 14,000 to 340,000 in sixty years (1945–2005), an increase of more than 2,300 percent. A corresponding increase has also taken place within the group of academics.
Reference is often made to our ambition and tradition of a broad folkbildning. Folkbildning is about the life-long right of all people to freely seek knowledge. It is free and voluntary, and participants decide themselves both if they want to participate and what they want to do. Knowledge can be seen as an ideal: The more people that receive more education has for several centuries been implemented with extensive political ambitions. We take it for granted that primary school, high school, and all higher education are free of charge for everyone. This is not the case in all countries. In parallel with this, during the same period we built a comprehensive system for social security and income insurance which is also something that does not exist in all countries.
There is a strong relation between psychological safety and acts of curiosity in the workplace. I believe the Nordic social model of working life has an effect on people’s ability to think in new ways, try, challenge, raise important questions, cherish curiosity, and search for new knowledge.
Three concerns about polarization in relation to curiosity at work
A few different concerns have been raised within this area. The overall one is that there is a risk that we as humans could be losing our curiosity. The basic argument is that we allow ourselves to be served by everything from ideas, norms and structures to companies’ services without thinking very much about it. Another argument is that the rich information environment we find ourselves in and digital technology leads us not to exert ourselves enough; we find answers too quickly, have become dependent on short-term stimuli, and miss the necessary friction required for epistemic curiosity. One base for this concerns lies in the perception of how we have never lived in such a time before where it has been so necessary to have a sharp ability to formulate important questions about how we live our lives and how society functions. We need our ability to ask the important, difficult, radical questions. Several books have shown the way for establishing a relationship between curiosity, courage, and the importance of questioning the status quo. These books and the ongoing conversation also constitute a shift in concern at the same time:
• FROM a concern that a questioning culture will pose a threat to the current knowledge, order, and power.
• TO a concern that there is a lack of questioning culture that challenges the current knowledge, order, and power.
I want to highlight three other “concerns” that take as their starting point the risk of a polarized society.
- Automation leads to more cognitively demanding jobs and more jobs that are less cognitively demanding – few in the middle. It risks leading to a large group with low wages, few opportunities in life and a group with high wages and many opportunities in life. There is no group in the middle of this scale. There is a group where curiosity is central, desirable, needed, and rewarded, and another group where curiosity isn’t welcomed, where routine tasks dominate, and where the things done are not to be questioned.
- A neoliberal view of knowledge: An opinion that knowledge only exists to serve the needs of companies and that it is up to each individual to succeed in making themselves attractive in a market. This constitutes my second concern: a risk that this will exclude people in the struggle to constantly show themselves to be employable or to constantly show that they have the right skills. If the challenge to grow a curious mind only is up to the individual it is easy to who understand potential longterm consequences. We know who has the resources to take and bear responsibility for their own learning and who does not – the result is a increasing inequality in society.
- My third concern is that one group will have skills to navigate information-rich environments. They will understand with ease the business models that underpin these environments. This group will manage their epistemic and perceptual curiosity and stay focused on the task of choosing. They have a high ability to question the world around them, formulate questions, and think critically – to stay in control and master things, to write their own life story. Some groups will not, easily become distracted, lose their agency be reduced to being only a consumer.