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How Leaders Can Spark Curiosity To Ignite Learning

Whether it's embracing new ways of thinking, adopting new ways of working, or understanding an unfamiliar process or system, learning is crucial to improving performance in any role. As the pace of technology escalates, and the average time in the workforce extends, career-long learning is imperative.
To get the best from their people and drive performance in an increasingly volatile, uncertain and changing business landscape, leaders need to implement better ways of learning on the job. And when it comes to promoting learning, there's no better way than curiosity.   How Leaders Can Spark Curiosity To Ignite Learning

The link between curiosity and learning makes perfect sense. We're wired to be curious, and from the moment we're born it plays a major role in our personal development, not to mention the evolution of our species. 

When something intrigues us, we're compelled to investigate. And when we're inquisitive enough, it completely consumes us. This makes curiosity ridiculously effective at priming people to learn, putting them in the ideal state for experimenting, discovering, learning and improving.

Being curious about a subject puts people in a completely different mental state compared to being forced to learn. There's a subtle yet powerful shift in mindset that happens when people choose to opt in. They're more focused, committed to learning and actively engaged.

So with these benefits, how can leaders use curiosity to facilitate learning?

Well, novelty, intrigue and surprise are all proven to pique curiosity. But the most effective method is capitalising on a psychological phenomenon known as the curiosity gap.

In the early nineties, George Loewenstein identified that we're at our most curious when there's a gap between what we know, and what we want to know. An almost obsessive need to close this gap triggers an emotional response - much like a cognitive itch that we desperately want to scratch and only relieve by filling in the blanks.

Loewenstein's theory found that we can intentionally provoke curiosity by providing a small amount of information while withholding the rest. Marketing and advertising copywriters have been exploiting the curiosity gap to gain our attention and influence our behaviour for years. Clickbait headlines tease us with just enough information to pique our curiosity, promising a satisfying revelation with just one click.

To determine how effective the curiosity gap was in influencing people's decision making and behaviours, Evan Polman and researchers at the University of Wisconsin–Madison conducted a series of experiments. One study offered 200 participants a choice between a plain cookie and a delicious, chocolate-dipped, sprinkle-burnished biscuit. Which did most choose? The answer is obvious. 

Or is it? 

In a cruel twist, the researchers told half the participants that the plain biscuit was a fortune cookie with a personalised message inside. In the group who weren't given this additional information, a very sensible 80 per cent chose the superior chocolate-dipped cookie. But out of the group who were told the plain biscuit was a fortune cookie, 71 per cent chose the plain biscuit. Curiosity alone caused a majority to make an undeniably inferior cookie choice. 

Other studies confirm that we'll go to more effort simply to satisfy our curiosity. Polman and pals increased the use of stairs in a university building by roughly 10 per cent just by posting trivia questions near the elevator and promising that answers could be found in the stairwell.

These findings demonstrate how effective curiosity can be as a catalyst or trigger to gain attention, encourage learning, and even beginning the process of forming new habits. 

Leaders should make their messaging incomplete

Make it incomplete? Sounds counterintuitive, doesn't it? But, as Loewenstein discovered, the gap between what people know and what they want to know is an incredibly effective catalyst for learning and behaviour change.
To use the curiosity gap in communication, leaders can:
  • Tease people with a small amount of information while withholding the rest
  • Drip-feed content in small amounts to keep people hungry for more
  • Provide information as a puzzle or quiz for people to fill in the blanks
  • Consider segmenting communication where significant differences in knowledge or experience exist. The curiosity gap is more effective when people know a small to moderate amount 
  • Only use this tactic for positive messaging, never bad news. No one wants to be drip-fed hints about their impending redundancy

Author Credits

Dougal Jackson is co-founder of Jaxzyn, an employee experience company working with leaders of Fortune 500 and ASX listed companies. He is the co-author of How to Speak Human. To learn more, visit his websites: www.jaxzyn.com and www.howtospeakhuman.com.au

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