The generative role of curiosity in
soft skills development for
University of Southern California Annenberg Center for Third Space Thinking,
Los Angeles, California, USA
Purpose –This paper examines the role of curiosity in volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA)
Design/methodology/approach –This conceptual article relied upon an examination of literature about
curiosity, VUCA and soft skills.
Findings –Curiosity, when encouraged and supported within the workforce, may aid organizations in closing
soft skill gaps and better navigating ambiguity, perpetually changing business landscapes, and rapidly
Research limitations/implications –Empirical research is needed to validate, confirm and further
explicate the specific mechanisms and value of curiosity within VUCA environments.
Practical implications –Organizations need to move beyond espousing a value of curiosity to deliberately
and effectively cultivating and supporting it within their employees.
Originality/value –Although ample research and literature has examined curiosity, soft skills and VUCA
environments independently, the body of literature on the specific role of curiosity in such environments is
Keywords Leadership, Soft skills, VUCA, Curiosity, Stress tolerance
Paper type General review
Soft skills are typically defined as non-technical skills related to a series of interpersonal or
intrapersonal qualities critical to the success of both individuals and businesses (Deloitte
Access Economics, 2017). However, a soft skills talent gap has continued to plague
organizations wherein abilities such as creativity, persuasion, collaboration and adaptability
are reportedly among the most in-demand but also the most elusive (Lewis, 2019). In parallel,
the USC Annenberg Center for Third Space Thinking continues to advance an evidence-
based soft skills developmental model that identifies intellectual curiosity as an essential
attribute of an operational soft skills repertoire.
Curiosity, specifically, has been empirically associated with beneficial workplace
outcomes such as employee engagement and agility (Gino, 2018), increased creativity
(Hagtvedt et al., 2019) and enhanced organizational performance (Mussel, 2013). In short,
organizations need individuals who can conceive and germinate novel ideas and
revolutionize solutions to evolve their businesses into sustainable entities over the long
run. Accordingly, companies have increasingly endorsed curiosity as a core organizational
value. Yet, a curiosity contradiction exists: Even as senior leaders extol the virtue of curiosity,
employees report that its expression (e.g. asking questions or bringing new ideas) is regularly
met with resistance or is even discouraged (Harrison et al., 2018;Merck KGaA-EMD Group,
2016). Part of the problem is the lack of a universally adopted, empirical definition of curiosity
due to the multifaceted composition of the construct and the evolving theoretical models of
curiosity in soft
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available on Emerald Insight at:
Received 7 August 2019
Revised 10 November 2019
4 February 2020
Accepted 9 March 2020
Journal of Organizational Change
© Emerald Publishing Limited
curiosity in the extant literature. Lacking a clear definition undermines our ability to
sufficiently understand curiosity or proactively adopt and efficiently cultivate it in our
Although this gap in literature and practice is an impediment, it is not an excuse to
continue the same course. Discouraging curiosity can mean guaranteed stagnation for an
organization in today’s VUCA environment marked by volatility, uncertainty, complexity,
ambiguity (Raghuramapatruni and rao Kosuri, 2017) Moreover, the components of VUCA
frequently exist in some combination. For instance, an emerging product market might be
both ambiguous and volatile, or expansion into a foreign territory in the midst of sweeping
governmental change may be both uncertain and complex. Today’s business environment
continues to morph into new operational paradigms fueled by accelerating technological
disruption and increasing global complexity. Successfully navigating such environments
demands well-developed soft skills including patience, sense making, adept engagement with
uncertainty, and perhaps foremost, curiosity.
While this paper presents an in-depth examination of curiosity and the corresponding
business implications for organizations, this article is, in effect, an urgent call for corporate
stakeholders to swiftly address the curiosity contradiction within their own organizations or
risk lackluster performance and unsustainability in the VUCA environment. The remainder
of this paper outlines the demand for and development of soft skills and a robust review of the
curiosity construct. The role curiosity plays in developing soft skills is then considered and
implications for organizations are presented.
Demand and development of soft skills
Focus on soft skills in business has gained momentum in recent years, primarily for two
reasons. First, soft skills have been shown to directly correlate with higher organizational
performance (Adhvaryu et al., 2018). A 2014 Korn Ferry study indicated, for example, that
highly agile learners, characterized as these workers “who learn from past experiences and
subsequently apply those learnings to new situations, recurrently acquire new skills, face
new challenges, and perform well under changing conditions and ambiguity”(Korn Ferry,
2014, para. 2) also produce 25% higher margins than their non-agile peer group. Second, hard
skills (i.e. technical skills, quantifiable skill sets) have short-lived relevancy in the current
VUCA environment –roughly amounting to a shelf life of only five years (LinkedIn
Workplace Learning Report, 2017). Researchers at Deloitte and McKinsey predicted that
increases in workplace automation will shorten this shelf life further while accelerating the
demand for soft skills (e.g. sophisticated social, emotional and cognitive competencies).
Specifically, Deloitte researchers predict that by 2030, soft skill intensive occupations will
make up almost two-thirds of the workforce (Deloitte Access Economics, 2017).
Meanwhile, development of employees’soft skills has not kept pace. For example, a 2012
survey of 1,500 companies worldwide reported that 92% of the executives interviewed
identified a skills gap in the American workforce, with approximately 44% of participants
attributing this to a lack of soft skills (Association of Talent Development, 2012). Similarly, in
the Wall Street Journal’s2016 survey of 900 executives, 92% reported that soft skills such as
curiosity, communication and critical thinking were equally or more important than technical
skills (Davidson, 2016). Eighty-nine percent of those same executives reported difficulty
finding hires with soft skills, further underscoring the soft skills shortage in today’s
In 2014, the USC Annenberg Center for Third Space Thinking (TST) completed an
exhaustive multi-year analysis of the problematic soft skills talent gap in the United States.
The Center for TST concluded that a consistent set of five communication-oriented
competencies were necessary for success in VUCA environments: adaptability, cultural
competency, empathy, intellectual curiosity and 360-degree thinking. These five foundational
competencies form the basis of Third Space Thinking (TST).
TST faculty then studied the application of the five TST competencies within an
American undergraduate collegiate population and a multicultural executive-level
professional sample over a consecutive three-year period. The results of this work was the
creation and validation of an evidence-based, communication-centered model for soft skills
development they called ACE-IT. Although ACE-IT subsequently was implemented, for
example, by Google, IBM, United Airlines, and other organizations, corporations continue to
grapple with effective, scalable talent development interventions focused on soft skills
development. Fortunately, encouraging employees’curiosity may be an effective and efficient
way to develop their soft skills. A first step in doing so is reviewing the extant research to
evolve our understanding of curiosity.
The construct of curiosity
Curiosity is a trait frequently associated with explorative pursuits of ambiguous, challenging,
or complex situations along with seeking and exploring behaviors that, in turn, generate
certain actions and states (e.g. learning, autonomy, task absorption). The consensus among
scholars is that curiosity is a durable individual difference or personality trait that prescribes
individuals’typical exploratory responses occurring as part of dynamic states (Harrison,
2012). This means that individuals with higher baseline levels of curiosity are likely to
experience states of curiosity more frequently and more intensely, generally leading to
certain mental, emotional and pragmatic benefits.
While curiosity research dates back as early as 1890, a resurgence in the research was ignited
by British and Canadian psychologist and philosopher Daniel Berlyne from the late 1950s
through the 1970s. Berlyne (1954,1960) conceptualized curiosity as four drive states (e.g.
diversive, specific, epistemic, perceptual) triggered by exposure to collative variables, defined
as novel, complex, uncertain or ambiguous stimuli. In effect, curiosity was a drive state
elicited by cognitive dissonance and conceptual ambiguity, which created a sense of
disequilibrium (Ntim, 2017). For example, a drive state may be triggered by a desire to reduce
boredom or resolve a perceived incongruency by seeking information.
In the early 1990s, George Loewenstein of Carnegie Mellon University proposed the
information gap theory, wherein curiosity was a state of deprivation elicited by a perceived
gap in knowledge that prompted an individual to seek knowledge in order to resolve a finite
uncertainty. Loewenstein (1994) thus argued that the seeking of information was not
principally a pleasure-seeking state but a pain-avoiding state. In other words, the individual’s
metacognitive judgment motivated him or her to seek information to remove the tension
associated with being uncertain or confused about stimuli within known or distinguishable
contexts (Litman, 2018).
From these germinal theories sprang two primary and distinct models that have heavily
influenced the trajectory of scholarly curiosity research, largely due to the prolific work of
researchers Dr. Jordan Litman, Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Maine
at Machias, and Dr. Todd Kashdan, senior scientist at George Mason University. These
researchers and their work are demarcated by how they define and measure the curiosity
construct. Whereas Litman defines curiosity as “the desire to know, to see, or to experience
that motivates exploratory behavior directed towards the acquisition of new information”
(Litman, 2005, p. 793), underscoring its epistemic manifestations, Kashdan defines curiosity
generally as “the recognition, pursuit, and desire to explore novel, uncertain, complex, and
ambiguous events”(Kashdan et al., 2018b, p. 130), thus underscoring and investigating the
cognitive, emotional and motivational aspects of curiosity.
curiosity in soft
Litman’s work centers on the I-D model of curiosity, originally proposed by Litman and
Jimerson (2004) and further advanced by Litman (2005,2008,2010). The I-D model combined
the traditional models of internal motivation (induction) and drive (reduction) orientations. As
such, curiosity involves two principal facets: (1) curiosity as a feeling of interest or I-type
curiosity and (2) curiosity as a feeling of deprivation or D-type curiosity. Interest is curiosity
motivated by a desire to seek information for its own sake, whereas deprivation is curiosity
motivated by a desire to reduce the uncertainty and frustration caused by knowledge gaps.
According to Litman (2018), the term type is “meant to describe two relatively distinct subsets
of emotional-motivational experiences and behavioral expressions that are found to diverge
into meaningfully different, but not orthogonal categories”(p. 421). The I-D model spawned
subsequent domestic and international studies for over a decade and continues to inform the
underlying framework for studies focused on measuring epistemic curiosity or intellect.
Kashdan et al. (2009) developed the two-dimensional model of curiosity and, later, the five-
dimensional (5D) model (Kashdan et al., 2018b). Creation of the 5D model stemmed from the
recognition that disparate bodies of curiosity research had created a need for a clearer
demarcation of the central features of curiosity. Based on a population of nearly 4,000 US
adults, this model describes curiosity as (1) joyous exploration akin to interest (I-type
curiosity), (2) deprivation sensitivity similar to curiosity stemming from lacking information
(D-type curiosity), (3) social curiosity analogous to interpersonal curiosity (see Litman and
Pezzo, 2007), (4) stress tolerance defined as a willingness to accept and harness the anxiety
associated with novelty (Kashdan et al., 2018b) and (5) thrill seeking.
The I-D model and the 5D model of curiosity have occupied the leading contemporary
views of curiosity. While different in composition, both models fundamentally underscored
the emotional-motivational constitution of curiosity which informed the inherent complexity
and polarity (e.g. curiosity can be both pleasurable and frustrating) and variances in
measuring individual trait curiosity. The components and characteristics of curiosity lead to
certain behavioral implications that impact individual and organizational performance.
Curiosity is inherently generative and action oriented. The individual variances outlined by
both the 5D model and the I-D model correspond with differences in the need for cognition and
epistemic curiosity. Individuals high in I-type curiosity are believed to have a high tolerance
for and tendency to seek out collative variables (Lauriola et al., 2015;Litman, 2010;Litman
and Mussel, 2013). In contrast, individuals high in D-type curiosity are motivated to resolve
ambiguities and to reduce knowledge gaps rather than to seek them (Lauriola et al., 2015;
Litman, 2010;Litman and Mussel, 2013). Similarly, individuals scoring high on deprivation
sensitivity become intellectually engaged when thinking about abstract or complex ideas,
solving problems and seeking necessary information to eliminate knowledge gaps (Kashdan
et al., 2018b).
However, individuals with D-type curiosity or those high in deprivation sensitivity
demonstrate “the weakest link with the ability to cope with the stress of confronting the new”
(Kashdan et al., 2018b, p. 144). This element of managing stress or disruption mark an
important shift in how curiosity is viewed, because curiosity had traditionally been
considered a metacognitive process as originally argued by Loewenstein. Both Litman (2018)
and (Kashdan et al., 2018b) argued that the nature of curiosity is a cognitive-affective process,
characterized by similar appraisal mechanisms of interest derived from the work of Silvia
(2008). Silvia posited that the appraisal facets of curiosity consisted of an individual (1)
viewing an event as having the potential for complexity, novelty, unfamiliarity or uncertainty
and, thus, warranting focused attention and (2) making an assessment that she or he would be
able to sufficiently cope or manage the negative emotions involved with exploring uncertain,
new, or unchartered terrain. This meant that the appraisal process involved in curiosity,
which manifest as a tolerance for collative variables, not only induce a state of curiosity but
also account for individual differences in trait curiosity (Lauriola et al., 2015;Noseworthy
et al., 2014).
Even though the influence of and relationships with collative variables can be relatively
contradictory in nature between I-type and D-type curiosity, both types exhibit an action
orientation either evoked by appetitive striving (approach motivation) or by aversion
motivation to reduce or avoid frustration. Lauriola et al. (2015) indicated that neither types
“correlated significantly with behavioral inhibition”(p. 202) wherein the I-type demonstrates
optimistic approaches to higher risk taking and learning while the D-type exhibits “greater
caution, thoughtfulness regarding knowledge search”(p. 202). The latter was also supported
by (Kashdan et al., 2018b) in that scoring high on deprivation sensitivity can “lead to
exploration and aid in the development of insights and knowledge”(p. 144).
Therefore, motivation induced by curiosity can lead individuals to seek out and immerse
themselves in new situations, which will tend to result in increased knowledge, skill building,
relationship quality and creative ability (Mussel, 2013). For example, a recent field study
conducted by Hagtvedt et al. (2019) showed that a single-unit increase in curiosity (e.g. a one-
point score increase on a seven-point Likert scale) was associated with 34% greater
Curiosity is generally considered to be a potent ingredient influencing productive
cognitive and emotional subjective and intersubjective processes (Silvia, 2012), as well as in
achievements and socialization (Mussel, 2013). Furthermore, individuals who are curious are
reported to possess enhanced or elevated adaptive attributes (Kashdan et al., 2013a, 2013b)
such as a robust intellectual capacity; enjoyment of abstract, complex, unconventional and
nonconformist thought; and a propensity to refrain from judging, criticizing, or blaming
others (Kashdan et al., 2009). In addition, individuals who are curious are reported to be less
anxious and concerned about uncertainty (Kashdan et al., 2013a). Curiosity also is associated
with less aggressive reactions to provocation (Kashdan et al., 2013b).
In effect, curious individuals tend to exhibit a higher degree of mental and emotional
dexterity, which in turn can promote positive self-regulating behaviors such as creativity
(Karwowski, 2012), thoughtful evaluation (Lauriola et al., 2015;Maner and Gerend, 2007),
ideational fluency and sophisticated problem-solving (Celik et al., 2016;Hardy et al., 2017), and
mindfulness (Carson and Langer, 2006). These behaviors, in turn, increase the possibilities for
achievement, workplace engagement and job satisfaction. In related research, global
executive search firm Egon Zehndeaving concluded based on an analysis of executives’
performance over a 30-year period that curiosity was the only one of four traits (the others
being insight, engagement and determination) to be correlated with all eight leadership
competencies the firm deemed critical to a leader’s success (Fern
aoz et al., 2017).
Despite the growing empirical research illuminating the possible positive outcomes
associated with curiosity, an organizational paradigm exists that can stymie the
cultivation of curiosity on a wide-scale basis.
The organizational curiosity contradiction
Data have shown that organizations claim they value curiosity yet discourage its expression
among employees, pointing to a problematic curiosity contradiction. For example, in a cross-
industry survey of more than 23,000 employees and C-suite leaders, researchers from
INSEAD and SurveyMonkey found that 83% of senior executives said curiosity was
encouraged “a great deal”or “a good amount”at their company, while only 52% of
responding individual contributors concurred (Harrison et al., 2018, p. 5). While
approximately half (49%) of the C-level believed curiosity was rewarded by salary growth,
curiosity in soft
only 16% of individual contributors agreed (p. 5). Eighty-one percent of individual
contributors were convinced that curiosity made no measurable difference in their
compensation (p. 5).
Similar results were found in Merck KGaA’s two-year survey study of 3,000 workers
across 16 industries in the United States, Germany and China: 65% of employees reported
that curiosity was essential to discover new ideas, while an equivalent percentage felt unable
to ask questions on the job and 60% reported encountering barriers to curiosity in the
workplace (Merck KGaA-EMD Group, 2016). This curiosity contradiction can undermine
curiosity in organizations, in turn, compromising these firms’health and sustainability,
especially in the current VUCA environment.
Because confusion and lack of understanding about curiosity among corporate
stakeholders may exacerbate this contradiction, it is valuable to reiterate empirically
supported conceptualizations of curiosity to gain insights about what exactly curiosity is and
how it may be developed.
Specifically, curiosity derived from wanting to know for the sake of knowing and
fascination with new information and experiences may result in the approach behaviors
associated with intrinsic motivation (Schutte and Malouff, 2019). Additionally, it is critical to
observe that individuals do not exist on a scale from being incurious to extremely curious. A
modern-day conceptualization of curiosity is one that considers curiosity as a multifaceted
trait that informs how an individual is curious (Kashdan et al., 2018b). Organizations need to
adopt this view of curiosity if they are to capitalize on curiosity to ignite positive workplace
outcomes. Namely, if organizations understand how their employees are curious, important
insights can be gained about how that curiosity can be cultivated to manifest imperative
workplace soft skills, which have been empirically associated with curiosity such as
emotional intelligence (Leonard and Harvey, 2007), empathy (Halpern, 2007), situational and
cultural adaptability (Harrison et al., 2010; Van der Zee and Van Oudenhoven, 2000) and
proactive coping (Seaton and Beaumont, 2008). The way curiosity acts as a bridge (mediates)
the development of soft skills is further discussed in the next section.
The mediating role of curiosity in soft skills development
Research with executives across various industries conducted by USC Annenberg Center for
Third Space Thinking revealed that curiosity may play a mediating role in developing the
soft skills outlined in the ACE-IT model (see Figure 1). Significant correlations were found
between intellectual curiosity and the following cognitive and behavioral attributes: (1)
cognitive adaptability, (2) multidimensional decision processing (characteristic of 360-degree
thinking), (3) multicultural sensitivity (akin to cultural competency) and (4) social perceptivity
(generally referred to as empathy). These findings were supported by earlier analyses
conducted by a third-party research firm during the development of the TST assessment, in
which the data showed a strong correlation (0.01 significance; no influence of secondary
factors) between curiosity and similar attributes and was not replicated by the other
attributes. This function of curiosity within the ACE-IT model may be due to four
components of curiosity persistently documented in the curiosity literature: (1) openness to
experience (e.g. the willingness to try new activities), (2) exploratory behavior, (3) desire or
need for knowledge and (4) disruption tolerance (Horstmeyer, 2018).
Openness to experience
Openness to experience has been positively correlated with all curiosity measures (e.g. I-type
and D-type) (Hunter et al., 2016). In addition, openness to experience has been more highly
correlated with total creative achievement than other factors historically correlated with
creative achievement (e.g. IQ, divergent thinking, personality traits; Kaufman, 2013).
Moreover, openness to experience not only consisted of a willingness to try novel activities,
but also to an awareness and receptivity of felt emotions. Individuals higher in trait curiosity
displayed less aggression to provocation across different social interactions and exhibited the
tendency toward positive affect and lower negative affect throughout social interactions
(Kashdan et al., 2013a, 2013b).
These findings highlighted a functional utility of curiosity in reducing combative debate.
For example, individuals with higher trait curiosity were reported to be more inclined to
consider another’s perspective and the meaning behind another’s emotion (Main et al., 2017).
This, in turn, inhibited destructive behavior and promoted empathetic or prosocial behaviors
during interpersonal conflict (Gino, 2018;Halpern, 2007); thereby, demonstrating a
relationship between intellectual curiosity and empathy. This relationship can be found,
for instance, within the T-shaped professional globally indoctrinated at companies such as
IDEO, IBM and Cisco. The vertical stroke of the “T”is a depth of skill that allows individuals
to contribute to the creative process derived from any number of different fields (e.g.
engineering, architecture, business, science). Practitioners of the model have purported that
the horizontal stroke of the “T”represents a disposition for collaboration across disciplines –
predominantly attributed to empathetic curiosity. Empathy allowed people to imagine the
problem from another perspective while curiosity facilitated enthusiasm and interest about
other people’s disciplines, even to the extent that they would visibly practice them. Sociology
researchers at United Kingdom-based Cardiff University empirically demonstrated that the
T-shaped professional possessed the breadth of knowledge and experience with others which
enabled expedient adaptation to role changes, and sophisticated communication skills for
teamwork in multidisciplinary, multifunctional, or multicultural contexts (Collins and
The exploratory aspect of curiosity similarly can mobilize constructive behavior. The
curiosity literature review of 39 peer-reviewed articles (2003–2013) conducted by Grossnickle
(2016) revealed 64% of the studies discussed curiosity as a motivator behind exploration or
the pursuit of knowledge or information. In addition, Hardy et al. (2017) concluded that
Theoretical model of
the mediating function
curiosity in soft
creative problem-solving was “an effect that was fully mediated by information seeking
behavior”(p. 230). Furthermore, even though the I-D facets of curiosity elicited different
problem resolution orientations respectively (Lauriola et al., 2015), the need to bridge the gap
between cognition and cognitive dissonance triggered exploratory behavior to find answers
Exploratory behavior was associated not only with higher levels of problem solving but
also with positive reframing that encouraged adaptability (Harrison et al., 2011). When
confronted with novel situations, positive reframing enabled an individual to perceive change
as less stressful and more likely to adapt more effectively (Włodarczyk, 2017). This could be
one of the contributing factors to why epistemic curiosity has been reported to be
uncorrelated with anger and depression (Litman and Jimerson, 2004).
Desire for knowledge
The need or desire for information to reduce ambiguity and uncertainty has been well-
documented, as previously described. The need for information facilitates learning new skills
(Mussel, 2013). Accordingly, such individuals were more likely to be equipped to adapt to
changes in their environment including organizational restructuring and expatriate
acculturation (Pulakos et al., 2000;Van der Zee and Van Oudenhoven, 2000).
The adaptability to situational variations relates to the novelty-complexity appraisal
mechanism within curiosity and the corresponding stress tolerance modulations. On the one
hand, a high tolerance for ambiguity and novelty encourages pleasurable exploration and
positive affect typically associated with new discoveries and innovation (Lauriola et al., 2015).
On the other hand, a low tolerance for ambiguity, uncertainty, or unsolved problems
provokes hard work and persistence in the form of intellectual engagement (Litman and
Mussel, 2013) and intellectual inquisitiveness (Powell et al., 2016).
Employers can increase employees’stress tolerance by creating a workplace culture
wherein risk and failure are encouraged in the pursuit of new ideas and innovation. For
example, Intuit supports disruption tolerance through its annual awards. In addition to
innovation awards for employee explorations leading to valuable new products or processes,
failure awards (along with failure celebrations) are given for employee explorations leading to
important learnings for the team (absent new products; Gino, 2018). Research suggests,
however, that advocacy of and support for such employee ideation and experimentation is
absent among contemporary leadership. In a 2017 survey of 4,300 business executives,
managers and analysts across 123 countries and 28 industries conducted by MIT Sloan
Management Review, two of the three top requisite leadership traits respondents identified as
gaps in present-day leadership were creating conditions that enable people to experiment and
having the ability to execute by empowering people to think differently (Kane et al., 2018). The
ways that curiosity may catalyze these critical leadership traits and the development of soft
skills lead to several implications for organizations, which are discussed in the next section.
Implications for organizations
While an overview of the curiosity research helps to illuminate the inherent complexity of
curiosity and the relationship between curiosity and soft skills, the need remains to translate
curiosity research into business implications. Three principal considerations are offered to
organizations as they contemplate whether to deliberately cultivate curiosity within their
workforce. First, curiosity plays a role in deeper work engagement, ideational fluency and
exchange of ideas with others. In the 23,000-person survey described earlier, when feeling
curious at work, 73% of individual contributors reported “sharing ideas more”and
“generating new ideas for their organizations”(Harrison et al., 2018, para 13). This was
illustrated, for example, by managers at Procter and Gamble Brazil, who in the mid-2000s,
challenged strategic and organizational traditions by internally self-organizing to ensure
closer cross-functional teamwork and leveraging relationships with customers to develop
low-cost, high-quality alternatives to premium products (Kanter, 2011). That is, they
autonomously undertook this risky initiative and self-organized to uphold tighter cross-
functional teamwork and safeguard customer partnerships.
Second, curiosity has been linked to behaviors characteristic of a growth mindset, such as
translating failures into learning opportunities and choosing activities that stretch and
develop skills. In effect, a growth mindset can promote a broadening and building of abilities
stemming from continuous learning and improvement. Organizations that embrace a growth
mindset and stretch assignments and foster a failure-tolerant environment reportedly enjoy
bottom-line benefits. For instance, organizations with a healthy learning culture have shown
to be (1) 92% more likely to develop novel products and processes, (2) 52% more productive
and (3) 17% more profitable compared to organizations that do not emphasize a learning
culture (Agarwal et al., 2018). This means that professionals across disciplines and roles who
develop a growth mindset may be better equipped to adapt to VUCA environment markers
such as industry consolidation, technological, regulatory and geopolitical disruption and
fickle consumer preferences.
Third, while certain industries may demonstrate a stronger proclivity to supporting
curiosity generally, the facet of stress tolerance inherent within curiosity remains low in every
industry sector (Merck KGaA-EMD Group, 2016). When stress tolerance is low, employees
are less likely to explore a new idea for fear of negative consequences. This was illustrated by
barriers to curiosity common across industries, which included top-down decision-making
approaches, limited time for creative thinking, preferences for the status quo (e.g. safe ideas)
and fear of being isolated for counter-group thinking. These barriers also have been
contributing to the curiosity contradiction discussed earlier in this paper. Given the
multifaceted nature of curiosity, curiosity’s role in soft skill development and the consequent
implications for organizations, several takeaways should be considered by those
understanding and responding to the urgent need to address their organization’s curiosity
Five central take-aways are relevant for organizations. First, the evolution of the multifaceted
theoretical models of curiosity underscore the intrinsic complexity of curiosity. As a result,
theoretical models have been constructed to capture and to measure the individual
differences that constitute the multiple facets of trait curiosity. Curiosity has been
conceptualized as an emotional-motivational approach orientation due to the autocatalytic
nature of curiosity of seeking and exploring stimulated by collative variables (Kashdan et al.,
2018b;Litman, 2018;Silvia, 2012). In addition, innate within curiosity are properties that
reinforce information-seeking behavior and promote, for example, learning and memory
(Gruber et al., 2014;Marvin and Shohamy, 2016), intellectual engagement (Litman and
Mussel, 2013), intellectual inquisitiveness (Powell et al., 2016) and innovation (Celik et al.,
2016). Furthermore, curiosity also shares aspects of the proactive personality which facilitate
adapting to and proactively managing and coping with unfamiliar situations (Crant, 2000).
Second, organizations are significantly challenged by ambiguity and constant change
(Kane et al., 2018). The facets of curiosity such as openness to experience, exploratory
behavior and desire for knowledge are aspects that can be exploited to help organizations
better manage market uncertainty and volatility. In addition, the 2018 Deloitte Global Human
curiosity in soft
Capital Trends report showed that more than 50% of respondents expected to see an increase
in demand for cognitive abilities (55%), social skills (52%) and process skills (54%) while 63%
believed complex problem solving would be a critical skill in the future (Agarwal et al., 2018).
Navigating ambiguity and persistent change, therefore, requires advanced social skills and
cognitive skills, such as creativity, critical thinking and complex information processing –all
of which have been empirically associated with curiosity. At the same time, in the age of
automation, soft skills such as adaptability supersede technical fluency. Moreover, as
previously discussed, the research supports that a viable path to adaptability can be achieved
Third, while technological advancements such as artificial intelligence (AI) and virtual
reality are already transforming the workplace, the optimal benefits of these technologies will
be realized in collaboration with human capital (Agarwal et al., 2018). Bughin et al. (2018)
predicted that AI would not replace but would accelerate the demand for higher social and
cognitive skills. Between 2016 and 2030, demand for social and emotional skills is expected to
grow across all industries by 26% in the United States and by 22% in Europe. Because of its
multifaceted, generative quality, fostering curiosity could help companies address soft skills
gaps through the application of communication-based soft skills development models such as
ACE-IT. Within ACE-IT, curiosity potentially acts as a catalytic intermediary by bringing
other essential soft skills forward. Models such as ACE-IT can help individuals to learn to
efficaciously cope with exploration of the uncertain, unknown and unfamiliar which in turn
can enable them to proficiently harness empathy, multicultural inclusivity and
multidimensional thinking aptitude to advance the agenda of the organization forward.
Developmental models that do not involve curiosity may not be able to produce a fully
operational soft skills repertoire and, therefore, may not be as effective in reducing the talent
soft skills gap relative to developmental models that promote curiosity.
Fourth, the curiosity contradiction must be addressed if organizations are to thrive in a
world of increasing technological disruption and global complexity. In the 3,000-employee
survey conducted by Gino (2018), 92% attributed curious people with bringing new ideas into
teams and organizations and viewed curiosity as a catalyst for job satisfaction, motivation,
innovation and high performance. In addition, curious employees were reported to
demonstrate greater adeptness for peer conflict resolution, social support galvanization
and team connection and trust. Yet, only 24% of employees reported being curious in their
jobs on a consistent basis (Gino, 2018).
Finally, curiosity also has been linked to growth-oriented behaviors (e.g. learning,
reframing, autonomy). Thus, by perpetuating the curiosity contradiction, organizations
ultimately restrict employees’performance potential and resiliency. The 2018 LinkedIn
survey showed that developing employees growth mindset was identified by business
leaders as the second highest priority in talent development (Harrison et al., 2011).
Organizations, therefore, must promote experimentation and innovation, support informed
risk-taking, allow for iteration and improvement and codify and share learnings from failures
to enhance employee stress tolerance. According to Kashdan et al. (2018a),“Without the
ability to tolerate stress, employees are less likely to seek challenges and resources and to
voice dissent and are more likely to feel enervated and to disengage”(p. 14).
The inherent quality of curiosity to catalyze exploration, openness to experience, creative
problem-solving, ambiguity tolerance, collaboration and learning have important
implications for organizations in their need to develop employees’essential soft skills such
as social empathy, situational and interpersonal adaptability, cross-cultural sensitivity and
inferential and multidimensional thinking. While further research is needed, the preliminary
data suggest that soft skills development models that do not support curiosity may develop a
more limited set of soft skills. Such development, as a result, may have a narrow effect on
reducing the workforce soft skills shortage.
Supporting curiosity means dismantling legacy systems and structures that espouse
authority over inquiry and advocate routine over resourcefulness. Organizations that do not
support experimentation are, in effect, perpetuating the curiosity contradiction because they
are creating environments in which stress tolerance, openness to experience and growth
mindset are being stifled. Cultivating curiosity means reframing experimentation as an
efficient pathway to creativity and agility, because when curiosity is nurtured, based on
empirical research, individuals are more likely to be empathetic, adaptable, inclusive and
collaborative. They also are more likely to think divergently. This means that creativity and
innovation have a higher probability of occurring and potentially occurring more frequently
(e.g. more efficiently). Therefore, cultivating and allowing for curiosity both at an individual
level and at organizational level could be a potent mechanism to activate the organizational
dexterity needed to adeptly transform, for example, business challenges into meaningful
Leaders and corporate stakeholders play a critical role in stimulating states of curiosity
among their employees As Shin and Zhou (2003) observed in their study of 290 employees
and their supervisors across 46 Korean companies, when leaders intellectually stimulate
followers, followers “are encouraged to reformulate issues and problems, to pursue and
satisfy their intellectual curiosity, to use their imaginations, and to be playful with ideas and
solutions”(p. 704). Simply stated, leaders can mobilize and develop the competencies needed
to equip their organization for the marketplace of tomorrow by legitimizing and upholding
curiosity within their organizations today.
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About the author
Alison Horstmeyer, MS, MBA, PhD is a former Fortune 500 corporate executive turned talent
development consultant, certified executive coach, and humanistic researcher. She is the inaugural
Research Fellow appointed to the USC Annenberg Center for Third Space Thinking. Her doctoral
research focuses on work-related curiosity and the associated mental, emotional and motivational
attributes. Alison Horstmeyer is the corresponding author and can be contacted at: alison@
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curiosity in soft