Once upon a time I had a burgeoning cycling career. That ended when I was taken out by a Hummer on a training ride (Final score Hummer 1 – Tom 0). However, I still cycle regularly and enjoy watching the Tour de France and hearing about Doug Corneilus’s annual PanMass ride. I also still enjoy the occasional non-drug related cycling story. When you couple the above with a story from one of my favorite sportswriters, Jason Gay from the Wall Street Journal, you can see my interest when Gay’s piece yesterday was entitled “She Just Rode 184 MPH on a Bicycle. Really.” In my cycling career it was possible for me to reach up to 40 mph on flat ground and higher going down hills, although by that time I was usually too mortified to look at my odometer to see the speed I had achieved. Yet here was Denise Mueller-Korenek, a 47-year-old,who broke the all-time land speed record for bicycles, literally hitting 184 mph.
I was however curious about how she achieved this stunning feat, even after learning the prior record of 167 mph, set by a mere 40-year-old Fred Rompelberg, had held since 1995. The records were set and broken while the cyclists were following specially drag race cars who created the slip stream for the riders to cycle through for these amazing speeds. I definitely would not have the curiosity to look down at those speedometers.
All of this lead me to an article in the most recent issue of the Harvard Business Review (HBR) by Francesca Gino, entitled “The Business Case for Curiosity”. I have long urged Chief Compliance Officers (CCOs) and compliance professionals to be curios. I find it to be an essential ingredient for a successful career as a compliance innovator. The reason is two-fold. Most usually CCOs and compliance professionals are legally trained and curiosity for the business world is decidedly not taught in law schools. Moreover, unlike corporate legal departments, compliance professionals are actually more closely aligned to business processes. This second point requires compliance professionals to be well versed in a wide variety of corporate disciplines and skills outside their compliance function. Over the next couple of blogs posts, I will be considering Francesca’s article from the compliance perspective.
Gino explained it from a different perspective, laying out three key insights from her research which led to the article. First curiosity can help make leaders more adaptable to “uncertain market conditions and external pressures”. Second curious leaders usually encourage that from their direct reports and down the chain which provides these benefits throughout the entire organization. Unfortunately the third insight is not as positive as Gino found that many business leaders work to stifle curiosity and put up barriers to asking questions. This final insight may help explain why companies with gold standard written compliance programs only operate as check-the-box exercises.
Her idea is that leaders must work to end settings that suppress curiosity because an organization which allows curiosity is one that has superior engagement and collaboration. She believes that curious employees make better choices, improve corporate performance and help their companies adapt to an ever-changing marketplace and landscape. This sounds suspiciously close to an organization that not only values its employees but wants them to raise their hands and speak up. It may also speak to an company that values organizational justice, a cornerstone of any strong ethical culture.
Gino laid out why she believes there are benefits to a curious workforce and workplace environment. First her research found that a curious workforce actually led to less “decision making errors”. This is because when “curiosity is triggered, we are less likely to fall prey to confirmation bias and to stereotyping people. Curiosity has these positive effects because it leads us to generate alternatives.” This means that curious employees ask questions and if they are in a work environment that fosters such an approach, they will probably be less likely to follow the heard mentality.
It would seem axiomatic that curiosity fosters greater innovation and “positive changes in both creative and non-creative jobs.” Gino found that encouraging employees to be curious generated workplace improvements. She stated, “When we are curious, we view tough situations more creatively. Studies have found that curiosity is associated with less defensive reactions to stress and less aggressive reactions to provocation. We also perform better when we’re curious. In a study of 120 employees I found that natural curiosity was associated with better job performance, as evaluated by their direct bosses.”
Here you might consider the example of Louis Sapirman, the former CCO of Dun & Bradstreet, Inc. (D&B), who got the company through its Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) investigation with a full declination and his innovative use of social media to engage the employee base. His fostering of curiosity with the workforce led to greater participation in the social media outreach and better ideas to enhance the company’s compliance program.
Gino’s final insight on the benefits is really both sides of one coin. By encouraging curiosity you lessen group conflict because it “encourages members of a group to put themselves in one another’s shoes and take an interest in one another’s ideas rather than focus only on their own perspective. That causes them to work together more effectively and smoothly: Conflicts are less heated, and groups achieve better results.” The flip side is that curiosity enhances more open communication by employees and also increases team performance. She found that “groups whose curiosity had been heightened performed better than the control groups because they shared information more openly and listened more carefully.”
Curiosity may have killed the cat but Gino has demonstrated that it improves employee performance and makes companies more agile and nimble. In today’s hyper-sensitive world of social media these qualities are all very desirable. While I have worked in corporations which the management style was simply ‘my way or the highway’ my sense is that the current workforce is much less likely to put up with that leadership style. Finally, and for every compliance professional, if your employees are encouraged (directly or tacitly) not to be curious, they will more than likely never raise their hand to report a problem.
And they will certainly not ride a bicycle at 187 mph.
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© Thomas R. Fox, 2018