Warning: what I am about to teach you can be used to inspire your team to level-up and engage. This elegantly simple concept can be used to earn the trust and attention of your leaders. But, the very same psychological phenomenon can be used to betray your audience's trust and over time—even undermine your relationship with your team.
So, wield this secret wisely.
Take the stairs
A couple years ago, a psychologist decided to run an exciting experiment in an office tower. He posted a riddle above the elevator's up button in the lobby. A puzzle just like this one: "Which common word changes its pronunciation when the first letter is capitalized?"
Below the riddle, he hung another sign that said, "The answer is at the top of the stairs."
Many of us have been told taking the stairs every day can make us healthier. Tons of research, science, and statistics back this claim up. One study suggests that climbing two flights of stairs a day can lead to six pounds of weight loss over one year! (Wow, that sounds great. But climbing the stairs is awful.)
Logically, we know taking the stairs is good for us, but we still take the elevator. When inspiring others to do things that are hard or uncomfortable, reason and logic rarely work.
What researcher Evan Polman wanted to know was whether he could inspire office workers to make healthier decisions by invoking a simple, yet powerful, psychological phenomenon. Could Evan get more people to take the stairs? Could this simple quest for an answer entice people to make healthier choices?
So, Evan and his team sat back to watch.
The power of curiosity (It doesn’t just "kill cats")
Evan's experiment is designed to dispel with all the reasonable arguments to take the stairs. Instead, he's testing an elementary subconscious psychological phenomenon that uses the power of emotion to inspire immediate action. Evan is testing our Need for Closure.
Our Need for Closure is an innate, deep-seated, desire to avoid ambiguity, and find an answer to every question. Our mind can't stand an open, unanswered question. It's an amazingly powerful emotional phenomenon that can overcome logical objections and even inspire us to do painful or uncomfortable things, like taking the stairs.
We've all experienced our Need for Closure's power over us. Ever found yourself conducting a Google search under the dinner table because you must find out that movie star's name that no one could remember? That's your Need for Closure.
Even though people aren’t as naturally curious as cats, creating a Need for Closure in your team's mind is easy. All you need to do is create a void between what we know and what we want to know.
Want your team to show up for a meeting at precisely noon? Send an email with the subject line, “Conference Room at 12:03 p.m.” (Don't you find yourself wondering why 12:03 p.m.? That's your Need for Closure.)
Want your leaders to submit their employee reviews on time? Send an email with the subject line, “Print and hand me your employee reviews by Wednesday at 9 a.m., and I’ll have something for you.” (Wait, what? What do you have for me?)
Want your leaders to make time to read a leadership book? Rip out the first five pages of the book. Leave them, anonymously, in envelopes on their desks with a note on the last page that says, "Call extension 3551 right now." (Who is at extension 3551? Where's the rest of this book? Why did they rip out these pages? Who sent this stuff?)
This is the power of curiosity.
Curiosity is powerful. But it's also a dangerous tool. Mismanage it, and it can undermine your team's trust.
If you've ever clicked on headlines like these:
"23 Celebrities You'd Never Guess from Their Yearbook Photos" or "The Tragic Transformations of the 15 Cutest Child Stars Ever" or "What Happens to This Man INSIDE a Water Balloon Will Stay With You For Hours,” then you've fallen victim to the evil side of your Need For Closure.
These headlines are classic examples of what's known as “clickbait.” Platforms like Buzzfeed and Upworthy built their entire businesses using headlines that prey on your Need for Closure. So often, the payoff doesn't match the expectation set by the headline, and you're left feeling cheated, manipulated, and dirty.
That's why your payoff must be proportional to the void when you're creating a curiosity gap.
So, that meeting at 12:03 you scheduled? There better be a reason you got everyone there at 12:03.
When those leaders submit their employee reviews on time? You better have something unexpected and exciting for them.
When I call extension 3551 to get closure for all those questions I'm asking myself? Make sure you deliver on the expectations you've set. Otherwise, you're just creating a real-life version of clickbait.
What about that experiment?
Right about now, your brain wants closure. You’re probably thinking, "Hey Andrew, this is really interesting, but what's the answer to the riddle Evan and his team posted at the elevator." (Am I right?)
Some people still took the elevator. But others took the stairs. In fact, just posting a simple trivia question in an office tower increased the number of people who took the stairs by 10 percent. Every. Single. Day.
Now, 10 percent might not sound like a lot but imagine if you could inspire 1 in 10 of your employees to be on time more often, read more leadership books, or even submit their employee reviews when they're due just by using their need for closure to inspire them to act?
So, what's the answer to our trivia question? Which common word changes its pronunciation when the first letter is capitalized? Polish. Get it? Polish, polish.
Congratulations, you made it to the top of the stairs.
More on leading with curiosity
We're going to be diving into the power of curiosity at DDI LeaderCon this year. I'm going to show you how exploding watermelons, mystery boxes, and even TV shows like Stranger Things can help you transform your leaders from experts to visionaries. Are you curious? See you there!
(Editors note: Don't worry. No cats were harmed in the production of this blog. We're a bunch of cat lovers here!)
Andrew Davis is a bestselling author and internationally acclaimed keynote speaker. Before building and selling a thriving digital marketing agency, Andrew produced for NBC's Today Show, worked for The Muppets in New York and wrote for Charles Kuralt. He's appeared in The New York Times, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, and on NBC and the BBC.