Did curiosity really kill the cat?

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You’ve heard the phrase. And you’ll understand the point. It’s a warning against involving yourself in others’ business, against asking too many questions. But is it good advice, really, to dissuade ourselves from inquisitiveness?

Might not curiosity be a good thing? For people, for leaders, for organisations?

Perhaps there are better feline guides for modern managers. Take Schrödinger’s cat. In a famous thought experiment, 19th-century Austrian physicist, Erwin Schrödinger, placed a hypothetical cat in a box, with a radioactive trigger and a flask of poison. According to quantum mechanics, at some point it could be both alive and dead. At least in theory.

I know nothing of physics, but this duality, the idea that something both ‘is’, and ‘is not’, is intriguing. Surely, that’s curiosity writ large.

But how is this useful for organisations?

Samantha Peters: "Closed-minded organisations fossilise, fail or collapse. They can also cause harm. So, an inquisitive mindset is a factor in organisational health."

Well, surely a mindset which sees things as potentially both right and wrong, will consider them in more depth, will more thoroughly test and explore them. Looked at another way, those less fixated on proving their stance, have more opportunities to learn.

When helping organisations modernise, I’ve seen two common patterns of uncurious behaviour. Firstly, organisations stop asking questions of themselves. They can’t imagine they’re wrong. Secondly, they evade others’ questions, repurposing ‘outsiders’ as threatening, framing external enquiries as defective or malicious.

This is problematic. You only need look at how often closed-minded cultures are cited in failures of national institutions or public bodies to see that. Closed-minded organisations fossilise, fail or collapse. They can also cause harm. So, an inquisitive mindset is a factor in organisational health.

But why, with so many other matters on the agenda, should we think about this now?

Well, we work in a time of fracture. So much talk of culture wars, echo chambers, twitter pile-ons, public shaming, purity spirals, tribalism. The list goes on. And it’s all too easy to tell others to ‘stay in their lane’. Critical enquiry or challenge appears to be getting harder.

Yet if we don’t cherish our ability to disagree – naturally, healthily, rationally – we are setting our organisations up to fail. Writer Scott Fitzgerald once wrote that a first-rate mind is one which is able to hold two opposing ideas at the same time. For me, it’s the mark of a first-rate organisation too. 

So, what to do. You can start by putting a premium on self-reflection. Then follow it by building an internal commitment to exploring others’ views and analysis. Couple that with a will to humanise colleagues, especially those with whom you disagree. Effectually build a culture of wonder, and doubt and debate, a culture of curiosity.

It’s been said, in another world, that not all those who ‘wander’ are lost. I’d flip that and say, in this world, it’s those who don’t ‘wonder’ that will be lost.

Wonder, wonder is what we require, to help organisations thrive in the years to come. Which means fostering an age of curious teams. Let’s let curiosity save the cat.

Unless of course I’m wrong.

Which is fine too!

For more information on the Being Well Together programme see:

Dr Samantha Peters is Chair of the Being Well Together Committee, at the British Safety Council



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