How to create a curious workplace culture in your startup

- September 15, 2023 3 MIN READ
Curious macaque monkeys grooming
Photo: AdobeStock
Renowned innovators, creators, artists, and explorers across generations all share a profound passion for curiosity.

This could be argued as their real key to success, with research confirming curiosity serves as a powerful driver for sparking ideas, engaging and retaining employees.

But for startups the luxury of unlimited resources and never ending budgets is non-existent in reality. And so, as the number of items on to-do lists continues to grow, the space and time required to be curious depletes. 

Caught between the chaos vs curious priorities, many often beg the question: How can startups make space for a curious culture while facing an uphill battle of mounting workloads and depleting resources? 

At the epicentre of a curious workplace culture are humble leaders. These leaders possess a profound awareness of their strengths and weaknesses and help create curious cultures through the adoption of a more egalitarian communication style that encourages open dialogue and honest feedback. This allows them to willingly confront unpleasant truths and admit their mistakes, demonstrating a commitment to trial and error — the basis on which innovation is found.

However, leaders cannot force people to be curious, they can only create an environment that fosters curiosity. In my experience, creating such environments requires three key traits for leaders to encourage their teams to adopt:  practising “towards thinking”, keeping an open mind and questioning reality vs. understanding.

Practise move towards thinking

To promote a thinking-forward approach, leaders should invite their teams to embrace imagination and explore possibilities, rather than fearing failure. This means we imagine what could be and how something will work, rather than fear of not getting something correct or something going wrong. 

To implement this, teams should move towards the possibilities through questioning, rather than trying to avoid risk.

Leaders should hold their team accountable for collective problem solving, as when your team is connected they understand their world in the context of the entire picture, rather than seeking to understand the problem from solely their own point of view or domain of expertise.

This approach not only helps validate the idea at hand, but also fosters social connections between various portfolios in order to develop the structure and environment for curiosity.

Work hard to keep an open mind

Maintaining an open mind is essential for encouraging curiosity within a team, and it often requires the willingness to learn, and unlearn, for continuous growth and adaptation.

Teams must be ready to learn and unlearn. What is true today may not be true tomorrow. 100 years ago, the thought of flying was considered merely the domain of the inventors.

Now, it is a daily reality. Diversify your thinking. Look at other worlds. 

Encouraging reading and viewing outside your team’s comfort zone will introduce both you and your employees to the possibilities and perspectives of other places, people or ideas which may spark your interest to explore them further. As a team, reflect on and be grateful for the implementation of new ideas — even if it was messy along the way.

Question current reality and understanding

Why do things need to be as they have been for so long? To create a curious culture your team need to become master questioners.

What is that? Why is it made that way? When was it made? Who invented it? Where does it come from? How does it work?

What, why, when, who, where, and how are the best friends of curious people. Leaders should create space for questions and exploration; promote divergent thinking and see what themes emerge within the team before converging. Ask questions of your team that promote out of the box thinking,

Albert Einstein said: “The important thing is not to stop questioning.”

His words resonate deeply in the pursuit of innovation through a curious culture.

Those who embrace curiosity are more inclined to seek feedback, ask open-ended questions, and effectively cope with ambivalent input from coworkers and supervisors.

Curious cultures help fuel idea generation and innovation, but also support performance and engagement, making it an indispensable trait for leaders and employees alike. 


  • Stephen Macdonald, Workplace Psychologist and cofounder of Map of Me.