Forget Teaching Hard and Soft Skills. Activate Employee Curiosity Instead!

By Susan P. Chen, Senior Vice President: Group Head of Corporate Talent Mgmt, OD and International People & Culture, GOJEK

Susan P. Chen, Senior Vice President: Group Head of Corporate Talent Mgmt, OD and International People & Culture, GOJEK

We have recently been taking great strides with learning and talent management initiatives at Gojek in order to better support and grow our talent pool.

We have introduced online learning platforms and offline learning sessions, where employees can pick up hard and soft skills for the workplace. We have also introduced GoXplore and GoIMPACT, which are structured programs to recruit interns and fresh graduates respectively. Our goal is to attract and train bright young talent as full-time Gojek employees.

While new tools and technology have enabled us to prepare, administer, track, and optimise our learning and development programs in a rapidly growing company, I’ve often wondered if these are sufficient to keep up with the ever-changing demands of the modern workplace. How far can we, as a company, go to ensure that employees are picking up the right skills in the most efficient ways?

The more I think about this challenge - my thoughts combined with past experiences in talent development - the more I realise that as much as we talk about skills for the future and skill shortages, the workplace doesn’t have a skills problem. We have a curiosity problem.

Why curiosity?

Employees attend learning and development programs in the workplace for several reasons: out of necessity, out of desire for career advancement, and out of curiosity. Of these, curiosity has perhaps the greatest value and is a higher predictor of enhanced performance.

The Cambridge Dictionary defines “curiosity” as an eager wish to learn about something. Curiosity drives individuals to improve themselves, not just in their professional lives, but also in their personal lives. A potential product of curiosity is a cross-pollination of ideas between our personal and professional lives.

The book Originals by Adam Grant quotes a recent study by the Michigan State University, which found that Nobel Prize winners were dramatically more likely to be involved in the arts than less-accomplished scientists. The study compares every Nobel Prize-winning scientist from 1901 to 2005, and found that engagement in the arts, like music, art, writing, and performing, increased their odds of winning the Nobel Prize by up to 22 times. Another representative study of thousands of Americans showed similar results for entrepreneurs and inventors.

Pursuing personal interests outside of work, such as in the arts, not only reflects one’s curiosity and aptitude, but can also serve as a powerful source of creative insight at work.

Curiosity in the workplace

In the context of the workplace, I believe that curiosity boils down to three things. Curiosity is first, admitting that you don’t know everything, second, the belief that there is never just one way to solve a problem, and finally, the desire to explore different ways to solve a problem.

There is much talk among those in leadership roles to help our team members achieve their full potential. I believe that activating a sense of curiosity in them, and cultivating an environment of openness, is a good place to start.

I moved to Indonesia about four years ago. I had been working in developed countries all my life, and knew that moving to an emerging market like Indonesia will present a whole different set of perspectives and challenges.

One of which is the expectation that leaders have all the answers.

I remember a payroll manager in a company I was working with at the time coming up to me with a question about taxes. In my mind, I said, ‘One, I’m new to the country. Two, I am not a tax expert. And three, she’s been in the company for so long, she knows Indonesia, and she clearly has the skills to solve this complex issue about tax’.

So I looked at her and asked, “What do you think? What is your recommendation?” I can always remember that look on her face. She looked at me and said, “You know what, no one has ever asked me that.” I was surprised. I could hardly believe it. She went away to explore a variety of options, and we solved the issue together, with her ensuring the seamless implementation of the solution. I saw her grow through that incident, and continue to grow in her career.

This story stayed with me throughout my time in Indonesia, even after changing companies twice. There are multiple reasons as to why I think asking questions in place of providing solutions are powerful. I believe the question I posed to the payroll manager sent a few different messages, which are one - I respect your expertise, I think you know the answer, or have the ability to find out, two - I, as a leader, don’t know everything, and three - I’m not going to give you answers that I don’t think I have the right approach to. And that becomes a powerful way to transform individuals to think about their own ability to find solutions to problems.

She came to me because she didn’t know the answer. I asked her what she thought it was. She started thinking about how to solve it, and then found ways to solve it in ways she previously wouldn’t. That, to me, is activating the loop of curiosity.

This incident changed my perspective to recognise that the power of questioning transcends geography and culture. From this, I learnt that the practical step for me to activate curiosity in my colleagues and peers is to ask reflective questions.

I’ve observed that capable, intelligent people in the workplace, such as this payroll manager, don’t lack the skills to solve problems. What they might need is a gentle nudge in the form of a question, such as ‘What do you think?’ or ‘How can we approach it?’ to activate them to seek the answers on their own.

The changing role of talent development in organisations

If curiosity, not skill, is the problem, then the way organisations think about talent development will fundamentally have to change.

Many organisations, Gojek included, currently take a more programmatic approach to learning. We have a series of learning objectives, come up with a curriculum, and create a bunch of content to impart the skills we think our employees need. But what if we could teach employees a skill that can activate them to pick up all these other skills on their own? What if all we need to teach employees is simply how to learn and be curious?

Changing the way employees learn also means a change in the ways we measure learning. Most learning KPIs currently reflect a very transactional approach to learning. We track things like the percentage of course completion, employees’ satisfaction rates with our courses, or the scores of pop quizzes. What we don’t track is whether these courses have activated employees to dive deeper into the topic of interest. If employees pick up a course at work on topic A, are they curious enough to look up related topics B, C, and D?

Transforming the organisational approach to talent development will require going back to the fundamental psychology and methodologies behind learning.

I particularly like the Montessori approach to early childhood education. Dr Maria Montessori (1870-1952) was an Italian physician and anthropologist who, by scientifically observing children all over the world, discovered universal patterns of development found in children regardless of culture and era. She distilled her findings into a method of childhood education for children up to 15 years old that is based on self-directed activity, hands-on learning, and collaborative play.

Montessori classrooms are thoughtfully-designed environments where every material supports an aspect of child development. Children can respond at any moment to the natural curiosities in the classroom, building a foundation for lifelong learning.

Many of us start our lives curious. Toddlers pick things up, smell things, put them into their mouths. Many lose that sense of curiosity along the way. How can we, as organisations, reactivate our employees’ sense of curiosity? Can we combine scientific knowledge of learning, such as Montessori’s methodology, with practical applications in the workplace to transform the way we develop our talent?

I don’t have all the answers. But collectively, we can find out.

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