What’s your browser? Curiosity versus our default setting

In his bestseller, Originals, organizational psychologist Adam Grant cites a research study that set out to measure predictors of job performance and satisfaction. The study, conducted by Cornerstone OnDemand, surveyed about 30,000 employees in call centers for banks, airlines and cellphone companies. They were looking for clues as to what kept an employee at their job. They looked at length of employment at the last job but found that employees who had held five jobs in the past five years weren’t any more likely to leave than employees who had been in the same job for five years.

However, the study found that employees using Firefox or Chrome web browsers ended up staying at their jobs about 15 percent longer than those who used Safari or Internet Explorer. Firefox and Chrome users also had significantly higher sales and significantly shorter average call times.

Michael Housman, Chief Analytics Officer at Cornerstone, is careful to point out that this does not imply causality, but the correlation does shed some light on the type of individuals taking the survey. Safari and Internet Explorer are the default browsers on the Mac and PC, respectively. To use Firefox or Chrome, the employee would have had to take the time and effort to download and install them – not an extraordinary feat, but a choice and effort nonetheless.

One might assume that the employees who took the time to download the non-default browsers were simply more tech savvy. But the research showed that there was no significant difference in computer literacy or proficiency in keyboard shortcuts. Nor were the Firefox and Chrome users faster or more accurate typists. After 90 days on the job, Firefox and Chrome users achieved a level of job satisfaction that Internet Explorer and Safari users achieved after a full 120 days on the job.

“The customer service agents who accepted the defaults of Internet Explorer and Safari approached their job the same way,” Grant writes. “They stayed on script in sales calls and followed standard operating procedures for handling complaints. They saw their job descriptors as fixed, so when they were unhappy with their work, they started missing days and eventually just quit.

“The employees who took the initiative to change their browsers to Firefox or Chrome approached their jobs differently. They looked for novel ways of selling to customers and addressing their concerns. When they encountered a situation they didn’t like, they fixed it. Having taken the initiative to improve their circumstances they had little reason to leave… But they were exceptions to the rule… Just as almost two-thirds of the customer service reps used the default browser on their computers, many of us accept the defaults in our own lives.”
Why? What drives that initiative to change our current situation for the better?

At c|change we think there is a fundamental spark: Curiosity.

How Curiosity Killed Thrilled the Cat

Curiosity has gotten a surprisingly bad rap for centuries.

Ben Jonson brought the cat into the conversation in his play from 1598, Every Man in His Humour: “Care killed the cat” – “care,” here, being synonymous with “overworrying.”

Helter skelter, hang sorrow, care will kill a cat, up-tails all, and pox on the hangman.

–Ben Johnson, Every Man in His Humour

By 1873, “Curiosity killed the cat” was an entry in A Handbook of Proverbs: English, Scottish, Irish, American, Shakespearean and scriptural and family mottoes. The saying’s lasting usage makes it clear: “Don’t ask too many questions! Don’t go nosing about.” Challenging the status quo could get one in trouble or labeled a “troublemaker.”

Of course, like all transgressive behavior there are those cats who risked curiosity and won plenty of acclaim; Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were all modern exemplars of curiosity. But by-and-large corporate culture in the 20th century was typified by Conformity, not Curiosity.

A Culture of Curiosity

In this disrupted century – as companies chase innovation like a cat chasing a laser pointer – corporations are calling for greater curiosity. You know an idea has reached critical mass when the Harvard Business Review devotes its entire September-October 2018 issue to it.

We won’t try to summarize some of the key findings, but rather reference the article “The Business Case for Curiosity” by Francesca Gino, a behavioral scientist who has done research into the area of curiosity. Recently, we were discussing Gino’s “Five Ways to Bolster Curiosity” when one of our managers made an interesting discovery. Or let’s call it a “reframing.”

The first Way on Gino’s list? “Hire for curiosity.”

“We’ve been doing that for as long as I can remember,” the manager pointed out. “We just don’t call it that.”

Indeed, ever since c|change was founded 18 years ago, we’ve built questions of curiosity into our interviewing process, though we’ve never directly called it that. On the most basic level, we ask about activities outside of work. But we also probe other non-work-related topics: “Name one of your top five movies or TV shows.” “Any favorite books?”

Like those default-browser users mentioned earlier, if we hear a potential employee heavily criticize their two previous jobs, our standard follow-up is: “And what did you do about that situation?” Certainly, it is possible those companies created barriers to conversation and curious inquiry, but we’re interested in how individuals take responsibility for their own work.

True story: I once had a young man interview for a copywriting position. He arrived without a portfolio, not necessarily a deal-breaker but problematic. He worked the phone in a customer service department and “really, really” wanted to become a copywriter. Had he done any freelance writing? No, he was looking for someone who might give him a chance to show what he could do. What type of writing did he do on his own, any short stories, poetry? No, after college he hadn’t felt particularly inspired to do his own personal writing. Was there a particular college paper he had written that he felt most proud of? No, they were mostly on topics he hadn’t been that interested in – but he got good grades! What books had he been reading recently? You know, after college, he really didn’t like reading long books but was more of a magazine reader. Well, um, what magazines do you read? Esquire and Playboy. We wrapped up the interview pretty quickly after that.

After you’ve brought that curious individual on-board, Gino cites four other ways to “bolster curiosity”:

Tinkering with Our Default Settings

While it may seem de rigueur for a branding and design agency like c|change to focus on curiosity, it is rocket fuel for improved performance in any company. Gino references a study conducted by the graduate business school INSEAD. Like the earlier study by Cornerstone OnDemand, the survey was given to those working in call centers. New employees were measured on their curiosity before they began their new jobs. After four weeks, each was then surveyed about different aspects of their work. The survey found that the most curious employees sought the most information from coworkers, and that information then helped them improve in their jobs. For example, those insights helped boost their creativity in helping solve customers’ problems.

At c|change, while building and fostering a culture of curiosity is something we’ve built into our DNA, we’re always looking for ways to improve what we do. The curiosity can take the form of small personal adjustments to the “default settings” of our own environment and in big ways with our clients.

Last year, one of our programmers was frustrated that the nearest available restroom was out of sight on the other side of the office. On his own, without seeking any prior approval, he installed a contact switch on the door frame. The switch was connected to our network and, via the Slack channel we use for interoffice communication, could tell anyone in the company when that restroom was occupied.

More recently, a project came in the office and required a technology that none of the programmers were familiar with. He was the first one to raise his hand and took on the new challenge with both curiosity and enthusiasm. The result was a solution delivered in a matter of weeks that exceeded the client’s expectations.

An article in that same issue of HBR, references five different types of curiosity:

    1. 01
      Deprivation sensitivity: we know there is a gap in our knowledge and filling that gap brings some relief and comfort.
    1. 02
      Joyous exploration.
    1. 03
      Social curiosity, in which we listen, ask questions, and observe to discover what others know.
    1. 04
      Stress tolerance, similar to the first dimension, in which there is “a willingness to accept and even harness the anxiety associated with novelty.”
  1. 05
    Thrill seeking goes a step further in which the physical, social or financial risks are positive stimulation that actively drives certain individuals.

What type of curiosity have you explored this week?

What I have is a malevolent curiosity. That’s what drives my need to write and what probably leads me to look at things a little askew. I do tend to take a different perspective from most people.
—David Bowie

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