The curious case of new employees: Are new employees curious? Should they be?

September 30, 2010

By Spencer Harrison, Boston College

Bringing new employees up to speed is a critical concern for organizations. One of the dominant views is that employees are shocked, surprised, and up-ended by various unexpected experiences they encounter on their new jobs. In turn, these negative emotional events force them to learn the nuances of their new job and their new organizational environment. However, recent literature has turned this reactive portrait of new employees on its head, focusing more on new employees as proactive agents: individuals seeking out opportunities to learn and develop themselves. Curiosity, the drive for new information that motivates exploration, provides a new way for assessing why and how individuals explore their new organizations. Indeed, firms like Google and IDEO purposely try to hire individuals that are curious. But we know little about how curiosity influences new employee learning and whether or not it works in less creative environments than those listed above.

Our research, based on surveys from 12 different organizations from the telemarketing industry, produced these findings:

  1. Curiosity occurs in two different forms: specific curiosity – when individuals feel driven to explore and locate a narrow, concrete piece of information, and diversive curiosity – when individuals play with new ideas and explore in a very broad way.
  2. Each form of curiosity motivates information gathering. Specific curiosity motivates information seeking, whereas diversive curiosity promotes positive ways of re-framing a situation.
  3. Information-gathering positively effects performance, increasing both efficiency and a willingness to re-shape the work role in innovative ways.
  4. Curiosity can thrive in an ostensibly “non-creative” industry. Call-centers have been compared to having an “assembly-line” in the head, yet paradoxically, perhaps because of the strength of bureaucratic environment, individuals seek to understand the rules and often find ways around them to satisfy customers.

The upshot for managers is that

  • curiosity is an important personality trait that may help employees learn quicker and become better performers;
  • curiosity seems to be broadly applicable in a variety of organizational settings.


Harrison, S. H., Sluss, D. M., & Ashforth, B. E. (Forthcoming). Adapting the cat: Trait curiosity in newcomer adaptation, Journal of Applied Psychology.

Harrison, S. H. (2009). Curiosity in organizations. Unpublished dissertation, Arizona State University.