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Curious workers are seen as insubordinate and annoy managers, HBR research shows

Are you the type of worker that asks a lot of questions? Perhaps you just want to know why things are done in a certain way or you want to look eager to learn. But beware: You’re probably getting on your boss’ last nerve. 

At least, that’s according to the latest research by Havard Business Review. The publication conducted three separate studies and consistently found that curious employees were seen by their leaders as insubordinate and, in turn, less likable.

HBR surveyed more than 900 leaders and employees working across human resources, sales and service, and manufacturing on how they expressed curiosity at work and how much supervisors liked their employees. 

The publication also measured worker’s political prowess including how good they are at networking, influencing others, expressing sincerity, and being socially aware.

Interestingly, curious employees who were politically skilled were not seen as pesty rule breakers. 

Balancing workplace curiosity and politics

Indeed, workplace curiosity isn’t all bad: A separate study found that inquisitive employees are most likely to be seen by leaders as creative and high-performing problem solvers. 

But HBR’s research suggests it’s not what you ask, but how.

To better understand the importance of political skill, HBR conducted two further studies—one including 400 professional MBA students and another with 528 employees at large companies—using a fictional worker called Alex. 

Curious Alex was described as someone who spends a lot of time seeking information to address work problems and thinks about a problem until it is solved. Meanwhile, politically skilled Alex was described as someone who understands people very well, is savvy about how to present to others, is able to communicate, appears genuine, and spends a lot of time networking and building relationships at work.

Once again, HBR found that curious Alex was seen as an annoyance. Not only that, but being less politically skilled also translated to being seen as unconstructive and less likely to contribute to organizational effectiveness.

What’s more, asking too many questions and questions with easy answers was also deemed unconstructive and resulted in being less likable. 

What to do about it

Firstly, curious employees should turn the questions to themselves: Are you politically savvy and diplomative? Are the questions you’re asking coming across as constructive or not? Could you have answered your own questions with a bit of further research?

If you answered yes to all the above, then the researchers suggest you tread carefully when throwing queries your boss’ way and try to limit yourself to asking the right questions at the right time.

Alternatively, training, role play, and coaching could be useful tools to brush up on your political skills.

“By expressing curiosity in politically smart and constructive ways, employees can contribute to their organization’s success without jeopardizing their own,” the researchers advise.

 Meanwhile, leaders should be careful not to be too harsh on curious workers. 

“If employees are being curious in constructive ways, it would be unwise and unfair for their leaders to penalize them,” the researchers add. “Therefore, leaders should ask themselves if they have biases, including unconscious ones, that may cause them to misjudge employees who seek information, knowledge, or learning in a genuine effort to make the workplace better.”

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