There is an old saying that curiosity killed the cat, but, in HR, the only things likely to be endangered by curiosity are boredom, the status quo and inefficiency.
Human resources is a profession with daily challenges, unique situations and tricky interactions to navigate. But through it all, there is one thing in which HR can always rely – a trait we should hone and use to its utmost potential because it is the gateway to innovation and problem solving: curiosity.
Ongoing learning is not a luxury; it is a necessity in today’s changing world. The good news is that the schoolroom is all around us. Everyone has a story. Everyone has something about which they are passionate, and that passion can broaden your perspective and help you look at things through a different lens. Everyone solves problems, and they do it in different ways. It is wildly fascinating to understand how others solve a business challenge and how that can be directly applicable to a vastly different business challenge you’re facing or will face - even years down the road.
A few years ago, I met a senior leader of a major medical facility. In the medical world, patient satisfaction surveys are critically important. Her location was receiving unfavorable survey results regarding whether nurses took a patient’s privacy into consideration. This was a significant business challenge as they could lose funding if the scores did not improve quickly. As I heard her tell the story, my mind immediately jumped to things that would take a lot of time and money including process changes and new training, or even whether more rooms could be made wholly private.
The leader, however, simply had the nurses articulate to the patient that they were taking the patient’s privacy into consideration. Of course they pulled the privacy curtain each time they did an examination or met with a patient. But now they explained, “I’m pulling the curtain because I’m taking your privacy into consideration.” As you might imagine, the scores improved quickly by utilizing this cost-free strategy.
You don’t need to work in healthcare for this problemsolving approach to be applicable. At the time I heard the story, I was nowhere near healthcare, but rather was involved in construction and manufacturing. It was not the similarity of industries but rather my own curiosity that brought an awareness of the effectiveness of simple, direct solutions. HR leaders should be curious - it is a tool for uncovering additional perspectives and options. Sharpen it.
It is impossible to be a good business partner for coworkers if you aren’t curious. The opposite of curiosity is complacency and that means accepting the status quo. Make a point to go deeper than the surface and ask to understand the how or why behind the “what.” If you prepare reports or provide data to someone in another area of the business, ask what parts of the data you provide them are most helpful. What do they use it for? Is what you are preparing for them what they really need? Could you give them something different that would work better?
If it is a report you provide on a regular basis, is the frequency optimal? I’ve often found that by asking that simple question, I can lessen the frequency while still meeting their needs, not cluttering their inbox and gaining time back in my own schedule. By understanding how and when they use the data, you can better set colleagues up for success while potentially gaining some efficiency back in your own schedule.
Curiosity provides the foundation for being mindful in your actions and interactions. How often, for example, do you think that employees approached to take on a new project feel that work is being dumped on them? A leader who is genuinely curious about his or her team would be aware of their career aspirations and development goals and would, therefore, be able to couch the assignment in terms that are not only palatable, but inviting: “I chose you for this project because you’ve done amazing work, and although this is a bit of a stretch assignment, it will be a great development opportunity for you.”
A side benefit of curiosity is that it keeps us from rushing to judgment. Even when there is evidence to the contrary, it is essential that HR assumes innocence first. This is vitally important to maintaining trust and credibility. Despite the data that you have at your fingertips that may clearly lead you to the outcome that someone was acting to intentionally buck the system, break the rules, neglect the policy or be disrespectful to a coworker, always assume innocence first. Get their perspective. Why did they choose to do it that way? Otherwise, you will almost certainly find yourself sitting with a disciplined team member who is citing outdated instructions or an email when a manager authorized an exception without effectively communicating that it was an exception.
Curiosity will ensure that the facts are gathered from all involved before an outcome is decided. The managers you work with will appreciate you for it too, because you’ve now helped them maintain trust and credibility with their team members as well.
Perhaps the greatest thing about curiosity is the very personal result: it allows a person to work through the day without recognizing how long it has been. Work is simply more enjoyable. But, while individuals benefit, so do organizations. People with a love of discovery are natural solution-finders. This reveals itself in streamlining and efficiency, accuracy and creating sustainable processes that minimize errors.
There is an old saying that curiosity killed the cat, but, in HR, the only things likely to be endangered by curiosity are boredom, the status quo and inefficiency. Sounds like curiosity is the “purr-fect” trait for an HR professional intent on making a meaningful impact.
Jenna Dobbins, SHRM-SCP, SPHR has been practicing her out-of-the-box problem solving skills in human resources for over 15 years. A self-described builder by nature, she has a passion for developing stronger, leaner and more effective processes to impact the human resource needs of an organization. She is currently human resources director at Pontoon Solutions, a workforce solutions provider.