Can an Employee Ask Too Many Questions?

I used to ask so many questions when I was a little girl—some of which I already knew the answers to—that my father used to say I just wanted to hear myself talk. The truth was I was curious, and I sometimes liked hearing the same stories more than once, either because they fascinated me, I enjoyed the retelling of them, or because there was something about them that didn’t make sense to me.

I was easily distracted by my imagination, which led to questions and curiosities. I would find myself spacing out about giraffes while looking down at my arithmetic exercise work sheet in the second grade.

Now I intersperse my work at a health trade publication with looking up the answers to questions that have nothing to do with my work, like wondering how big tiger feet are, or how far whales swim every day. True, my curiosities these days usually have to do with the natural world, and animals, in particular, but sometimes my imagination and curiosity also turns to my work, which makes me a better employee.

A new study has found a connection between curiosity and employees’ ability to creatively solve problems. According to new research from Oregon State University, people who showed strong curiosity traits on personality tests performed better on creative tasks and those with a strong “diversive” curiosity trait, or curiosity associated with the interest in exploring unfamiliar topics and learning something new, were more likely to come up with creative solutions to a problem. The findings were published recently in the journal, Personality and Individual Differences.

Creative problem solving and curiosity go hand-in-hand with a vibrant mind that likes to wander, so I’m not surprised. The same brain that would lead an employee to suddenly do a Google search out of the blue for the average temperature at the top of Mount Everest is the same brain that will look beyond what is right in front of it to find a solution to a problem.

It’s important to create a company culture that respects and values a wandering mind, seemingly irrelevant questions, and new ways of approaching old problems. For instance, if your spring marketing campaign has relied the last few years on the same mix of print and online advertising, and an employee wonders whether this year you instead should focus almost entirely on graphic marketing via Instagram, your managers should seriously consider the idea. Many managers, schooled in a conservative, perpetual throw-back culture would dismiss the idea outright as too risky, and too far from what’s worked (at least sufficiently) well for the last few years. A culture that valued questions and new ideas, would welcome the employee’s questioning of the marketing path the company has been on.

It’s important in the realm of imagination, curiosity, and new ideas that the liberty to ask questions isn’t just a privilege of those in managerial roles. A corporate culture that encourages the wandering mind would want even the lowest-level employees to be able to give voice to the travels of their mind, and how those travels have led to a new idea for marketing, serving customers, or making even more money.

If you catch an employee Googling information on how to run a llama farm, your first instinct shouldn’t be anger or fear that the employee is wasting time; it should be curiosity. Why would this employee be curious about llama farms, and how might what she learns in researching that topic be applied to her work for your company?

A fun game to play is to Google anything that comes into your mind at least a few times a day, and then to challenge yourself to find a way to connect the seemingly random topic search to your work. It’s an exercise that forces you to be creative in seeing connections you might not have realized existed, and it’s also a window-opener in understanding how your brain works. You might not realize that while researching new outfits for your Old English Sheep Dog that you’re actually curious about how online dog outfit vendors are selling their merchandise. Maybe you’ve suspected a problem in how your company’s Website interacts with customers, but you’ve pushed it to the back of your mind. Or you may simply enjoy looking at merchandise that brings you interest and enjoyment. Your company’s online merchandise, or the way it presents your services online, may be so boring that you—and your customers—can’t concentrate on it without looking for escape.

A company that doesn’t value the ability of employees to daydream and indulge in escapism thinking (often, unintentionally productive thinking) values employees whose brains are in neurological straitjackets. Their brains are immobilized enough to do exactly what they’re told to do, but not nimble or in shape enough to take the lead in idea generation. Employee brains that have been conditioned to only follow instructions, and only once in a while generate ideas on command, creates a top-down culture in which the organization becomes slow to respond to market changes because employees are waiting for guidance rather than taking the initiative.

Does your company recruit and encourage employees who enjoy new ideas, and deviating from work when necessary to refresh and ask about new ways of making the company successful?

Training magazine is the industry standard for professional development and news for training, human resources and business management professionals in all industries.