What really is curiosity? In the following interview, Stefan Oschmann, Chairman of the Executive Board and CEO of Merck, explains what the most productive human trait means to him.

The four measurable dimensions of curiosity
  • Inquisitiveness
    A knack for asking questions and analyzing ideas
  • Creativity
    The willingness to try new approaches
  • Openness
    A preference for a variety of experiences and perspectives
  • Distress tolerance
    The ability to approach the new and unfamiliar with courage instead of fear

“We wanted to find out more about the causes, background and degrees of curiosity.”

Stefan Oschmann,
Chairman of the Executive Board and CEO of Merck

Personality profile of employees at organizations that encourage curiosity

in %
Distress tolerance
Employees who rate their organization as very encouraging or extremely encouraging of curiosity score above-average in all curiosity dimensions.

More information about the four dimensions of curiosity is available here:

Would you
have thought that

68% of employees in companies that promote curiosity are particularly creative?

At work, a curious person is more likely to ...

in %
seek out new experiences
bring an idea to life at work
have a unique talent at work

Employee distress tolerance

on a scale of 1 to 100

“The desire to learn and discover inspires us; it’s the driver of technological progress.”

Mr. Oschmann, are you a curious person?

Curiosity has driven me my entire life. That’s also why I really like being at Merck. After all, curiosity has a long tradition in this company. Over a period of nearly 350 years, curious people have transformed a pharmacy into a global science and technology company that now has more than 50,000 employees. The curiosity of our employees still drives us today. They fuel our businesses in Healthcare, Life Science and Performance Materials, thus safeguarding our competitiveness.

Merck recently launched a global curiosity campaign. Why?

Curiosity has always helped people to make important advances. The desire to learn and discover inspires us; it’s the driver of technological progress – from the stone tools used by cavemen to the wheel, the compass, letterpress printing and the microscope, all the way to the digital innovations of today. We need curiosity and a passion for discovery more than ever before, especially since we face tremendous global challenges. Megatrends such as a growing world population, the aging of many societies and climate change call for innovative solutions. And that’s where we want to contribute.

What is at the heart of the Merck curiosity initiative?

A key element is our broad study, which we used to find out more about the causes, background and degrees of curiosity. We surveyed 3,000 employees from the United States, Germany and China, many of whom were not Merck employees. To define the rather abstract concept of curiosity, we worked closely with U.S. curiosity expert Professor Todd Kashdan to derive four concrete, measurable dimensions: inquisitiveness, creativity, openness, and distress tolerance.

Why is distress tolerance important?

When it comes to how we understand curiosity, it’s not just about thinking outside the box, being open to new things and wanting to realize ideas. It’s also about people’s perseverance and willingness to take risks. That’s because all new things involve uncertainty, complexity and resistance. Yet people who tolerate distress well tend to see this as an incentive – to satisfy their curiosity they stick to a topic and overcome obstacles.

said that their organization is “not at all encouraging of curiosity”.

Employee openness by sector on a scale of 1 to 100

Consumer Discretionary
Consumer­ Staples

What were the main findings of the curiosity study?

I find it notable that nearly all those surveyed consider curiosity to be fundamental to coming up with new ideas and solutions in the workplace. However, only one in five employees think they are curious themselves. Just because most employees do not describe themselves as curious does not necessarily mean that they’re not. They simply do not exhibit this quality as strongly outwardly. This might be related to the fact that in daily work at some companies, curiosity is a quality that is neither recognized nor promoted. The majority of those surveyed believe that curiosity is more important to them personally than it is to their employer. Many people do not feel comfortable asking more questions at work. Yet our study shows that employees who can deploy their curiosity have higher job satisfaction levels. Decision-making authority is another important aspect. Curious employees more often hold management positions.

Are there generational differences, is curiosity age-dependent?

Hardly. Generation Y employees, meaning those born after 1981, achieve somewhat higher scores when it comes to inquisitiveness, openness and creativity, but they show lower distress tolerance. It is suspected that older employees rely on their long-standing experience and thus feel more secure. They are more willing to take risks and stand up for innovative projects, also when these meet with resistance.

“Open exchanges, company-wide transparency, promoting and recognizing inventiveness, and a passion for discovery – all of these are important aspects of our company culture.”

How does Merck make its employees more curious?

Our innovations don’t fall from the sky. We need a work environment that promotes creativity and allows our employees to pursue things they are curious about. For example, we want to enable our employees to see the company as a safe haven where they enjoy trust and have the freedom to develop and shape new ideas. These days, managers should no longer give orders and check up on their people, but mainly motivate, support and appreciate them instead. Open exchange, company-­wide transparency, promoting and recognizing inventiveness, and a passion for discovery – all of these are important aspects of our company culture. A very good example of how we promote curiosity is our Innovation Center in Darmstadt. We offer employees and external start-ups keen about innovation a contemporary atmosphere in which they can let their creativity run free. And I am certain that such approaches will resonate strongly throughout the entire company. That’s because they prove that being open and curious is not only fun, but also leads to new solutions, products and business models that offer our customers and our company tangible benefits.

Curiosity Study 2016

How curious are employees at work? Do employers even value curiosity? And if so, do they foster it? We wanted to find the answers to these questions, which is why we launched the Merck Curiosity Study 2016. Using scientific methods, we surveyed more than 3,000 employees from various companies in the United States, Germany and China. The results are the first-ever broad look at the state of curiosity in today’s workplace. They also confirm one of Merck’s main tenets: If curiosity is nurtured and fostered, it can help solve many current and future challenges. This will make it possible to remain a step ahead and to drive scientific discoveries, innovations and economic success in a rapidly changing market environment.

Interactive Infographic

Take a 5-minute journey to discover some of the findings from the 2016 State of Curiosity Report.