Alison Horstmeyer on Curiosity and Thought Leadership

What’s the difference between an expert and a thought leader? What’s the big deal about curiosity? What’s the shadow side of curiosity? What does too much curiosity look like? If you’re curious, check out this episode with Dr. Alison Horstmeyer (Website, LinkedIn).


This transcript is AI-generated and may not be completely accurate. Please do not quote myself or any of my guests based on this transcript.

Ben Butina, Ph.D.: [00:00:00] Hello, and welcome to the Department 12 Podcast, where we talk about everything industrial and organizational psychology. I’m Dr. Ben Butina. And my guest today is Dr. Alison Horstmeyer, a leading edge, humanistic researcher, talent development consultant, and thought leader. Her research focuses on curiosity and the associated mental, emotional, and motivational.

In addition to her consulting practice. Dr. Horstmeyer serves as the director of client development and adjunct faculty for the USC Marshall school of business executive education. And she is the inaugural research fellow appointed to USC Annenberg center for third space thinking also a frequent guest lecturer for USC Marshall Lloyd  grief center for entrepreneurial studies.

How are you today? Alison?

So as I just explained, you’ve got a lot going on. Let’s start with, how did you get here? What’s your name?

Alison Horstmeyer, Ph.D.: [00:00:51] Yeah. So I, I actually come from the intersection of tech and media. I had a long tenure of building businesses at that intersection, usually emerging technology. So typically at the, at the fringes  launching new technology in a global purview.

So I had global purview and responsibility and worked a lot with sales teams and cross-functional teams. And during that, process really fired me up was it was helping other people be successful. And empowering them to succeed. And it was also during that process, I really knew,   it’s probably similar today that, you know, high levels of stress, anxiety, and complacency, , and I was always really struck by.

I really the, the different levels of that, the different variations of leadership, I saw that either encouraged that or help to mitigate that. And so I really wanted to understand it. And during the latter part of my career, I went back. To academia and immerse myself in my body, science, behavioral science, social science in, in different disciplines and modalities.

That’s when I became a certified coach and a registered yoga teacher, and really was looking across the spectrum of disciplines and started doing the research on own anxiety. And it was in my mindfulness research that I said, oh wow, can we be curious and anxious all at the same time? Is that in? And that was incredibly naive then because I was, I was wrong.

And at the same time, it catalyzed me into the rich world of curiosity. And that world is very, is, is very layered and complex. And any brought me back to anxiety because anxiety is such an indelible part of curiosity. And that is still very much part of my platform today is how can we manage that doubt those self narratives.

That anxiety along the way to really help us experimentation and exploration and really leverage our curiosity, which is a need in all of us. And, and so I have a strong humanistic lens. I really want to understand, what makes us innately human, what we can leverage. Within us that we have, everybody has curiosity is one of the 24 universal character strengths and really wanted to go back  and be of service to corporations in a way that was really aligned with how I wanted to show up today, which was a really higher.

Service orientation and really help people navigate the ambiguity and complexity that we have in our world, but how can we do it in a way that really could support them? And so that’s what brought me to where I am.

 Ben Butina, Ph.D.: [00:03:39] One thing that jumped out at me about your bio Alison, is that you’re identified as a thought leader on this topic of curiosity. Do you consider yourself a thought leader?

Alison Horstmeyer, Ph.D.: [00:03:48] I think then it’s how you define what thought leadership is. And for me thought leadership is really about catalyzing paradigm shifts. So, so mindset shifts, behavioral shifts how we really view our world and how we can shift that to, again, transcend those narratives that really can, can serve that.

And I saw curiosity. As a mechanism to do that as a platform to do that. And but the, the driver of my work was, you know, how can I be a value to help be a conduit for change? I know it might sound a bit corny, but you know, I really wanted to make an impact in a different way than I had in my previous career.

It iteration. And so that required me to think different. And and to normalize experimentation and exploration and then bring it back to the world in a way that could be accessible. And I still work very much today on how do I translate the scholarship into making it accessible. And if that’s.

Produces that shift that I feel that we need. And I see that as helpful to others and that can be categorized as thought leadership then I I’m happy to be put into that category. But I didn’t go, I didn’t, you know, go on this path like, oh, I’m going to be a thought leader. It was really about like, how can I make a change?

Ben Butina, Ph.D.: [00:05:13] So for you, at least it’s about catalyzing change. So it’s not just about developing , a deep level of expertise on a topic it’s about sharing that with others, for the purpose of helping them make a change in themselves or their organizations.

Alison Horstmeyer, Ph.D.: [00:05:28] Absolutely. Absolutely.  It does no good to keep it in theory or on a shelf. And for me  there are prolific curiosity researchers out there and, and my work is  hopefully contributing to the scholarship, but at the same time, I was really interested on the practitioner.

How do I translate that into practice where it is going to make a meaningful difference for, for our professional development and to give us the tools that we need because the world is changing so much and we, and we need to evolve our perspectives. And I think coming from it at a, a humanistic. Way and through the, the avenues of mind, body science and kind of integrated health science and, and maybe not a traditional ODI way helped me broaden my thinking about that.

Ben Butina, Ph.D.: [00:06:23] if an industrial an organizational psychologist or an IO grad student,  wanted to become a thought leader in a certain area. So they want to do what you’ve done. So they want to not just develop expertise around a certain topic, but they want to become the go-to person for that topic in terms of helping.

People in the real world use that information to make some desired change in themselves, their organizations, in addition to, to really, you know, researching and learning that topic inside and out. What other advice would you give them to, to move towards that thought leadership?

 Alison Horstmeyer, Ph.D.: [00:06:58] What I can offer is from my personal experience and in my perspective and so what, what I’m sharing is really an offering and not meant to be prescriptive because the idea is you will have to experiment to see what, what works for you.

But I can tell you that fundamentally, I had to get really clear on who I wanted to be and who I wanted to evolve to be, you know, really get clear on, on my core values, on my personal mission statement. You know, I had to have some kind of compass grounding. And get really clear on what the vision was for.

I, you know, I used to joke about it’s it’s Alison version five Datto. You know, we all, we all have iterations through our journey. my uncle is a great example. He said about, you know, seven different careers and then use that compass to, to figure out, you know, what is, what is the, the voice and the message and the tools around that that you want to develop and use and home.

And what are the components to, to that voice, into that package that you need to not only develop it and make it better, but elevate your brand and your profile. And when I’m talking about components, it’s not disparate components, it’s just components that work synergistically together, even in a bi-directional way.

So for example you know, my work in academia gives me. That, that foundational kind of evidence based practice. Right. I have evidence-based tools I’ve crafted, rooted in research. And then I take those out into organizations to see how they work, because you don’t know until you, you actually go and do, and then I’m capturing, data.

Experiences that way. And then I write about it and I talk about it. And as I’m talking and writing about it, I get more feedback and that craps and helps me evolve my thinking further. And you know that then that way they work together. There’s a really nice bi-directional relationship. And I always knew that my approach needed to be multifaceted, but that I would straddle somehow, both academia and the corporate world in this way, because that, that came kind of natural to me that comes from you know, being in business development and connecting disparate things and seeing how they can work together.

The, the other component for me was, you know, talking to people and networking and finding like-minded souls that you could collaborate with because you can’t do it all on your own and not all collaborations are going to work out. That’s part of the process but certainly kind of finding your tribe.

That can help lift you up and is willing to try things out with you. And that’s also such an important part is the willingness to get out of your comfort zone and stretch yourself. I have been stretched. Like I have gotten really uncomfortable and like, wow, I’ve never done this before. See how it goes and sometimes it doesn’t work out and then you have to pivot and readjust, but if you’re just staying kind of within a certain level of comfort then  you’re just really limiting yourself.

And you’re not being able to see the possibilities of where you can take your voice and message.

 Ben Butina, Ph.D.: [00:10:28] So it’s not about just digging deeper into one topic , but more about reaching out, trying new things expanding and growing and, and taking on challenges that force you to grow as well, right?

Alison Horstmeyer, Ph.D.: [00:10:40] I think in this phase of my journey in this, in this iteration of my career have had, have experienced a significant growth in the shortest amount of time. That’s because I. I really wanted to know, what’s going to happen when, I take the practice into the real world, how do I really make it accessible to people in a way that’s really going to be going to serve them.

 A key component is, always being on top of, what others are doing in your field to see what you can glean from them and what they can glean from you.

I really try, you know, in, in the corporate world, we can kind of come from that scarcity mindset and I really try. To, to embrace that more of that growth mindset, where it’s about improving, it’s about you know, how can we learn from each other? There’s there’s enough work for everybody kind of lens.

And that, that has been really helpful as well.

Ben Butina, Ph.D.: [00:11:38] In a lot of what you’re doing is based around, you know, the, the study and application of curiosity, I’m assuming.

A lot of the research findings are that , curiosity is good and that it’s helpful in a lot of different ways. It’s, it’s obviously a character strength that’s universally valued. But given that, that so much is hanging on curiosity. I wonder, are you concerned at all that, you know, research might one day point in some other direction towards negativity and then  what happens to, to this thing you’ve built.

Alison Horstmeyer, Ph.D.: [00:12:05] That’s a great question then. I look at at the, the platform of curiosity is one that’s continually evolving and I don’t view it as static. And it is incumbent on me to be able and to, to be diligent that I am evolving the, the research and the practice around it. And at the same time, curiosity can take you a lot of places.

You know, I’m, I’m really fascinated with the connection between our core values and how we’re curious you know, I get questions quite a bit about how can we bring curiosity into more of a DEI lens. I have not done research in that area, in that that could be a whole nother track. So I feel.

The curiosity has a lot of tentacles and, and I could pursue the different paths to evolve the platform. And it may lead me to wanting to go back and exploring anxiety further. You know, when I look at well-known research researchers like that, let’s take Bernay brown, who started in social work and then she studied shame and vulnerability, and then she’s moved that into leadership development.

Or, you know, we have Susan David around emotional agility. So I think there’s always opportunity to evolve. I think the thing that I need to look out for is, is staying stagnant on the same platform.

 Ben Butina, Ph.D.: [00:13:30] Shifting gears from career to the topic of curiosity, I wonder, is there a shadow side to curiosity?

Alison Horstmeyer, Ph.D.: [00:13:39] Yeah. So in the research there is A part of curiosity that was documented early around 1994 seeking sensation. And then that was further studied and kind of resurfaced in, in 2006. And it has now become card of Todd cash stands, five dimensional model called thrill-seeking. And it’s this dimension of curiosity where you are actively.

Seeking intense experiences and, and high high risk, whether that’s social risks, physical risks, financial risk. And so you can see that that, that may take you to some, you know, shadow places. I studied the relationship between curiosity and addiction, for example. But if someone is seeking such intense highs, you could possibly triangulate that, that there might be some kind of connection there.

But at the same time, When I look at that dimension of curiosity, that’s been documented, you can also see how it translates to, you know, Navy seals or extreme athletes. So there can be a good use of that quote, thrill seeking. Another part of curiosity could be potentially a, be a shadow side is on the social curiosity.

There is covert. Social curiosity. So meaning you were really, it’s a gossip and kind of in a duplicitous way, going for information in a way that’s, that’s really not genuine in it and is going to serve you which is a bit different than covert social curiosity, which is you are genuinely interested in others and, and learning about others.

Ben Butina, Ph.D.: [00:15:24] Curiosity I tend to think of as a positive thing. And usually with positive things, we, we tend to assume that the more we have of it the better. But there’s usually such a thing as too much of something. So. A good example from personality. Psychology is conscientiousness,  correlates with a whole bunch of positive outcomes in the workplace and beyond, but it’s possible for a person  to be excessively conscientious and, and become perfectionistic  adhere to extreme routines and things like that.

So there’s usually such a thing as too much of a good thing. So I wonder. What does too much curiosity look like

Alison Horstmeyer, Ph.D.: [00:16:01] you’re kind of describing, you know, in the strengths world, we have an overused and under use application, right? So certainly there can be an overuse of curiosity when, for example You know, and I’m productive curiosity in the workplace would be, you know, you’re completely, you’re completely checking out of your role and just getting down that rabbit hole of social media.

And you know, on one hand you’re saying, well, I’m giving myself a break and that’s an escape. Spencer Harrison did some work there that when we use our curiosity to escape were actually sending signals to our brain that says, you know, our current job is not really a value and is, is de energizing.

 We know also that what I’ve seen too  in my early research was  people can get so caught in the exploration or the questioning that kind of creates this circular.

Process where they feel like they don’t have the answers at all. It’s almost like they’ve stretched too far and they, they feel like they’re out of control a little bit and they have to stop and then come back and start the process of exploration again. So, you know, there, there can certainly be. Be a balance to any of our strengths and to figure out a way how to use it in a way that can really, really serve us.

Ben Butina, Ph.D.: [00:17:25] Suppose I won the lottery and with my fabulous wealth, I established the Alison horse to Meyer curiosity laboratory with a big fat endowment, a team of grad assistants. You can study whatever you want.

No grant writing. Are you going to explore with this with all of these resources?

Alison Horstmeyer, Ph.D.: [00:17:43] The work that I’m doing with organizations in terms of you know, I call them curiosity, interventions, really tools about how we can cultivate and harness and support curiosity.

We don’t have a lot of research on that and we and, and. Would really benefit all of us, if we could figure out those those practices or those tools. We certainly have a lot of research now on psychological safety and recognize that that’s an environment that supports curiosity, but in terms of actual tools that people can use.

We, we definitely need more work around that.  The other area, as I mentioned before is,  there’s not a lot of documented research about curiosity and how it can really help In, in terms of, diversity inclusion, belonging, if we are believing the positive outcomes associated with curiosity, and I’m very focused on you know, curiosity about self and curiosity about self to others, you know, is there.

Is there a place for curiosity in, in DEI, is that a numb tongue and untapped phenomenon that we’re not really investigating and figuring out how to incorporate into, into that, into that world. Certainly in our world today where we have a strong polarization and we really have a social and racial issues to solve you know, can that be a mechanism that we can have a more prominent place in that conversation?

You brought up conscientiousness,  there is a lot of conflation between openness to experience and the openness facet of curiosity. And, and so I always wonder, yeah. You know how much of our self-concepts inner values really influence how we are curious?

Cause I did see a bit of that in my research and I’ve only seen one other study start to connect the relationship between our core values and a curiosity. You know, but we haven’t done a thorough job of, for example, taking the, the Schwartz value model or the hall tuna model, and really kind of seeing what the relationships are between the different values and, and curiosity.

  The facets that I used to describe curiosity is, is one not knowing. So that really ties into kind of the deprivation, sensitivity or violation of expectation. The second fastest being exploration. So it’s active, it’s not passive, you’re not just observing or being interested because you can observe and be interested in do absolutely nothing. And then there the facet of openness because In my work in, in the literature, there is, you know, the, the, the open-mindedness the openness to experience seems to keep coming up as, as a way to try to clarify that level of openness.

But still is not.  It’s not clear.  And then the fourth dimension is the stress tolerance, dimension,  , how you manage the anxiety doubt and confusion along the way. So you can see how, how all these facets work together and. No previous research shows that that, that stress tolerance component is pretty much the kicker to the whole thing.

It’s it’s how, how well we feel we can manage and cope with that stress. Is it determined how we activate our states of curiosity and how well we sustain them? And then in that process, you know, how open can we remain to what we’re experiencing?

Ben Butina, Ph.D.: [00:21:05] In the show notes for today’s episode, I’m going to include links to your website and to your LinkedIn account.

If a listener is curious about curiosity or curious about  thought leadership or combining, you know, an academic career with an applied or consulting career, are you open to hearing from them?

Absolutely. You can contact me through the website or connect and message me through LinkedIn.

I’m happy, happy to speak with.

Well, Alison, thank you very much for taking the time to talk to us today. And it was a fascinating conversation and maybe we can do it again sometime.

Alison Horstmeyer, Ph.D.: [00:21:39] Thanks so much.