02 Feb Curiosity as an Antidote to Burnout
Arguably the most widely referenced thought leader and researcher in the field of curiosity is Todd Kashdan. Kashdan defines curiosity as the recognition, pursuit, and desire to explore novel, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous events. This almost sounds like a description of a pandemic! This should be easy then, right? Not exactly. Paradoxically, fear and stress can dampen our propensity for curiosity.
According to Kashdan (2010), curiosity benefits human beings at two levels: the individual level and the social level. At the individual level, curiosity is associated with individual growth, as an innate love of learning and of knowledge…without the lure of any profit. At the social level, curiosity is an ingredient for enhancing interpersonal relationships through infusing energy and passion into social interactions.
A habit of curiosity and observation can be self-mastered and self-practiced. Once adopted as the reflexive attitude during each daily interaction, a workday would be infused with enthusiasm, renewal and meaning, all of which counteract burnout.
A study by Merck highlighted four central components of curiosity.
- Inquisitiveness: exploring unfamiliar or complex situations to figure out what is really happening. Inquisitiveness moves us beyond the status quo to ask from multiple perspectives, “Why is this done this way?”
- Creativity: challenging current understandings of a situation, allowing ideas to cross-pollinate, and composing new solutions. A creative approach to sluggish sales, for example, could involve reviewing best practices from other industries or thinking about what market needs are indicated by lacklustre sales.
- Openness: accepting and suspending judgment for new ideas. Being open enhances our ability to notice subtleties others may miss and use these to spawn novel ideas. We also become more adaptable, dismiss traditional solutions that don’t fit, and author new solutions that enhance the organization’s flexibility and revenue.
- Disruption tolerance: being able to entertain ideas that advance the organisation, even if they seem unconventional and somewhat risky. Disruption tolerance is particularly needed when the problem and its solution are ambiguous. In such cases, we are prone to reach for low-risk, non-creative solutions that may offer little if any benefits. Disruption tolerance helps us stay with and even enjoy the tension that arises when taking risks and trying new things.
With curiosity, when you face new, frustrating, ambiguous, or uncomfortable situations that leave you feeling overwhelmed, you can embrace and move into challenge in a spirit of interest and engagement. Importantly, you may still feel some stress and anxiety moving into these challenges. However, the cost of avoidance—the alternative—is stagnation of the mind, body, and spirit. Stagnation occurs because avoiding challenges reduces your opportunities to experience new situations, leading to personal and professional atrophy. Embracing curiosity helps ease stress in four specific ways.
Effect 1: Makes challenges more achievable
When people view situations as threatening or stressful, they perceive that the demands of the situation exceed their personal resources. As a result, they believe the potential for loss is greater than the potential for gain. On the other hand, when people practice curiosity, they generally make positive evaluations of the situation, themselves, and their future. Accordingly, curious individuals tend to see difficult goals as attainable and generally enjoy tackling the issue (Kashdan et al., 2004). Even obstacles and situations requiring substantial effort to overcome are considered stimulating. These differences in how curious people perceive situations all help to reduce stress. This is because curiosity helps them frame challenges as ways to gain valued experience (whether negative or positive), which strengthens their commitment to work through novel, complex, and uncertain situations and to be stimulated rather than stressed by that process.
Effect 2: Increases self-directed regulation
Curious individuals tend to be more inner-directed, meaning they view their behaviours as being inspired by their values and interests rather than being directed by external forces such as external rules or social pressures. Kashdan et al. (2004) found in their research that inner-directed or self-determined people recognise, pursue, and flourish in challenge, excitement, and pleasure. Additionally, self-determined people tend to have improved performance, greater well-being, and lower stress in large part because they tend to accept, integrate, and learn from negative experiences. This is because when individuals are curious, they are less likely to revert to self-preservation or survival behaviours, those non-adaptive behaviours that can impair sound decision-making and diminish effectiveness. This is because these types of behaviours are informed by preconceived notions or false understandings which accordingly trigger higher levels of stress.
Effect 3: Lowers defensiveness
As a result of increased self-directed regulation, curious individuals faced with challenges are less likely to use defensive and avoidant responses that seek to circumvent failure, and are more likely to use active, adaptive coping. Kashdan et al. (2011) explained that when individuals engage their environment with a curious mindset, without distorting the uniqueness of the present moment, they are able to encounter the experience without feeling threatened or having to defend against it. Accordingly, curious employees not only have less need for survival behaviours but are typically more resilient because of their adaptive coping capabilities.
Effect 4: Activates mindfulness
The non-defensive openness to experiences that is associated with curiosity reflects a state of mindfulness, which could be described as a non-evaluative, receptive, moment-to-moment attention or awareness. The degree to which an individual is mindful reflects the degree to which he or she is sensitive and aware of what is presently occurring, both internally and externally, in a relaxed and non-judgmental manner. People who practice mindfulness tend to collaborate better, sustain higher levels of performance, and navigate stress more effectively.
Putting Curiosity into Practice
In general, it takes practice to become more aware of curiosity and how you can use it in various situations. The following exercises may help you access and develop your curiosity. As you cultivate a consistent practice of curiosity, you may notice a steady decrease in your level of stress. Our recent survey certainly shows increased levels of employee stress – 60% of employees reporting increased levels of stress since the onset of Covid-19. There is, perhaps, no better time to begin.
- At the end of each day, write down how you used your curiosity in ways that contributed to a positive or productive outcome. After two weeks, review what you wrote each day. What patterns do you see? What insights about your use of curiosity surfaced for you? How can these insights help you in the future to more successfully navigate stressful situations?
- Using a current business challenge or issue, facilitate a team meeting in which the team explores the questions listed below. Defer your own judgments and refrain from answering the questions until all members have individually contributed to each question:
- What are five ways to restate or reframe the issue?
- What are five potential solutions to the issue?
- What assumptions are you making?
- Which assumptions are based in current reality and not past experiences?
- What information do you still need and what resources could you use to get the information?
- Kashdan (2009) suggests practicing active curiosity by deliberately applying the four attributes of inquisitiveness, openness, creativity, and disruption tolerance to your environment to identify new opportunities. This contrasts with passive curiosity, where you explore something new only once it appears in your environment. After actively identifying new opportunities, journal about your experience and discuss your reflections with a partner, friend, or colleague.
- Consider a situation in which someone has offended you or you felt excluded. Apply the four attributes of curiosity to consider how you could reframe the situation. Could you reinterpret the situation to see the other individual as someone who needs positive growth? How might your curiosity help you face a similar situation in the future?
- Encourage your team members to take the time to be more inquisitive, explore new, creative ideas, reframe threats into opportunities, challenge their preconceptions and the status quo (e.g., why is this done this way?), and present at least three solutions to any one issue. Stress is a growing concern in organisations that erodes effectiveness and productivity of executives and employees alike. By cultivating curiosity, specifically the attributes of inquisitiveness, openness, creativity, and disruption tolerance, you may find your stress level decreasing as challenges become more achievable, you increase your self-directed regulation, your defensiveness lowers, and your mindfulness is activated.