Curiosity Killed the Cat…

Cimbing up was easy  151Curiosity might have killed the cat but it’s the lack of curiosity that is killing safety in many organisations.

Those of you who know me or have read any of my previous posts will know that I have an aversion to bureaucracy in all its forms. My reasons are many and well documented – bureaucracy isolates the worker from work, it is meant to protect only upwards in an organisation, it doesn’t make work safer….the list goes on.

Recently however I have noticed a more insidious and concerning effect of overbearing bureaucracy and that’s the effect that it seems to have on curiosity in an organisation.

Now there’s nothing new about wondering about curiosity. It’s been defined, catalogued and compartmentalised by philosophers and psychologists over the centuries but I had expected that the information age and the use of the Internet would have made it easier for us to find out about things, that should be easier to satisfy our curiosity and that we should be becoming more curious.

From my recent experience I would have to say that my answer is a resounding – it is not. If anything our curiosity is being dumbed down and I think that systems based on command and control might have something to do with that.

Kids point – those of you who are parents know that kids point at everything. Kids are naturally curious, that’s why the put their fingers in the flames of candles and put anything in their mouths. They point because they want answers. What’s that, what’s it called, is it good or bad, what happens when I touch it, what does it taste like? And they will continue to point as long as they get answers.

But stop responding and they will eventually simply stop pointing.

It’s just as easy to kill curiosity as it is to promote it.

And it’s the same, I fear, in the world of work. We might not be handing our employees a Game Boy to keep them quiet or sitting them in front of the TV while we get on with other stuff but are doing something very similar.

Our systems have become the equivalent of the Internet – it’s where you go to get answers without even really knowing the question or the context.

Through the excessive use of processes, procedure, checklists and forms we have dumbed down their curiosity.

We have stopped talking to them and they in turn have stopped point.

Shame on us.


  1. Rob Long Reply

    Well said John. Curiosity corresponds to a will to learn, preparedness to risk, discovery, wisdom, imagination and adventure. We want all of these attributes in our children and the people we meet. I do work for a company in Europe called Borealis, their two mantras are ‘keep discovering’ and ‘stay curious’. They know that the fear of uncertainty and excessive systems shrink innovation and inagination, the engine room of business success.

    Thanks for raising the creativity flag, i see so few in organisations speaking such language. Rather, safety is driving the discourse of risk aversion and it spreads through osmosis throughout the organism. So lets stop the talk of fear, zero and absolutes and speak more of agility, adaptability and maturity.

  2. Mark Reply

    Great post. Curiosity, in it’s many forms, is often resoundingly discouraged in large organizations and in my experience the level of discouragement is proportional to the need to have a “questioning” culture..those who need it most are the least likely to tolerate it. Ironically, asking “why” something went wrong is usually tolerated more than asking “why” something went right and a much harder question to answer. Even asking it gets you labeled as being “difficult”. I just received notification that a project achieved 3M hours without an LTA. Congratulations all around to the team, but no one will be able to answer the question “why” this project was able to achieve a milestone that no other project in the U.S. has even come close to. Contrast that to a business unit posting record profits. It’s very likely those leading the unit would be asked to explain in detail how they did it and possibly to replicate that success in other units around the world. Curious that posting a great safety record doesn’t warrant the same level of management attention to replication.

  3. drbillcorcoran Reply

    • Direct Causation

    An inescapable fact is that every effect/ phenomenon/ result/ consequence/ outcome is the direct result of a set of conditions, behaviors, actions, and/or inactions. One condition, behavior, action, or inaction cannot be the causation of any effect/ phenomenon/ result/ consequence/ outcome in the absence of at least one other pre-existing predisposing set-up condition, behavior, action, and/or inaction .

  4. Kathy Tabermer Reply

    Great post on curiosity. As co-founder of the Institute of Curiosity, I am very much committed to curiosity, particularly in working to understand each others (we do each have our own perspective on everything) and build effective relationships. Curiosity supports a culture of safety in an organization where incidents can be reviewed, reflection supported and learning facilitated. New safety strategies can be explored, collaboration developed which leads to understanding and innovation. Without curiosity, we tell can create fear and lead to judging, blaming and even shaming, none of which support a culture where learning can be supported. I believe curiosity is one of the most important skills needed in the workplace and at home in the 21st century.

  5. drbillcorcoran Reply

    • Mistaken Trust

    An inescapable fact is that the competent investigation of every harmful event reveals that the causation of the harm includes the mistaken/ naïve/ unwarranted/ gullible/ imprudent trust in one or more erroneous/ untrustworthy assumptions, devices , procedures, processes, people, and/or conditions.

    The functional alternatives include curiosity, skepticism, and the “questioning attitude.”

  6. Ben Kirkbride Reply

    I love the analogy provided in your post John. Being a parent this resonates. Kids learn by observing, listening, acting (doing) and via story telling (sharing of experiences). As human beings this is by nature how we learn to live.

    In an occupational setting, these key life lessons somehow get lost. There is no golden book that outlines how all things should be done, if fact, we learn what’s right by experiences, experiments, feedback and usually the duplication of our successes by these lessons over time.

    Bureaucracy that lies within ‘over the top’ safety management systems and processes has somewhat clouded peoples judgements to conduct themselves ethically at work, which has limited the capacity to learn from our experiences within enough resilience to adapt and change in real time to achieve better outcomes.

    1. drbillcorcoran Reply

      • Dysfunctional Priorities

      An inescapable fact is that the competent investigation of every harmful event reveals that the causation of the harm includes the dysfunctional prioritization of something conflicting with safety by multiple individuals, entities, groups, and organizations. These include regulatory agencies, oversight agencies, trade organizations, professional societies, standards making bodies, labor organizations, industrial/commercial entities, investors, management, and individual contributors.

  7. Ken Reply

    Bureaucracy bad and Lets get us pointing and asking questions is a great idea John. I find that one way of doing this is to cover the basics with the help of the Internet with a platform like initiafy and then get people to talk and interact and question. Use the initiafy platform as a starting point for the first message and induction step then in the words of James T Kirk Engage. . .

  8. Nakoko W. Reply

    I find this post very interesting . I remember when we had 5million LTI free hours . our cooperate Manager asked how did we manage to get that result ,where as others where showering praises to our project team. I wondered for 1 month and start searching where this question is coming from before i meet John’s posts . Then i started reasoning out of the box . bureaucracy is killing large organizations and the fear for uncertainty . We have to get HSE practitioners to get educated and come out of Zero accident to “Lets Talk about accident “campaigns across their projects

  9. Mick Roberts Reply

    Comparing adult workers to children from a behavioural perspective is a significant mistake in risk management. This very thinking, which is often so deeply embedded within senior organisational ranks is at the core of problems which are much greater than any bureaucracy can ever create. Adult workers are perfectly capable of curiosity in spite of sometimes overbearing systems. Systems should be there only to provide a ‘handrail’ towards best decision making and their size should be critically dependant on the particular cultural stage of the organisational operational and cultural capability. There is no ‘one size fits all’ solution. I would agree that command and control, although necessary at some point in organisational development, needs to give way to leadership, creativity and flexibility in decision making. To enable that, psychology, just like engineering, needs to understand that when it comes to safety and workplace management of risks, there are many viewpoints just as valuable as theirs and that answers do not lie exclusively within any particular discipline.

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