Leadership Values in Action: Curiosity
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Leadership Values in Action: Curiosity

Many managers are surprised to learn that curiosity is an essential trait for being an effective people leader. Think about it.

If you think you already know all the answers, you won’t be looking for anyone else’s take on an issue or opportunity.

If you don’t ask questions about your colleagues and team members, you won’t know more about them than surface-level information.

If you don’t wonder if you can do more or do better to improve, you won’t innovate or elevate your team’s work product.

And if you don’t seek to understand why someone else’s perspective or approach differs from others’, you may appear dismissive or uncaring.

Some of the greatest inventions we’ve known in our lifetime are the direct result of curiosity. It drives innovation and creative problem-solving. Inquisitiveness invites deeper thinking and opportunities for collaborative teamwork. What leader wouldn’t want more of that?

While some think that curiosity could mean traveling down a rabbit’s hole or wandering off on tangents, asking the right questions can lead to more streamlined workflows and expansive thinking.

When we prioritize the act of asking over the expectation of knowing, we open up opportunities for others to share their perspectives and problem-solve in ways that defy hierarchies.

Curiosity not only supports higher performance and ideation, but it can also further and deepen trust amongst team members when questions get asked that demonstrate shared interest in achieving mutual goals. Rather than simply answering a question from a colleague, consider asking why they asked it to advance conversation and help think from their perspective as well.

Be careful not to limit the idea of curiosity to leaders only. When we prioritize the act of asking over the expectation of knowing, we open up opportunities for others to share their perspectives and problem-solve in ways that defy hierarchies, for the good of the group.

In theory this makes sense. But what does it look like to act with curiosity in our organizations?

Behaviors that exemplify Curiosity:

  • Drawing others into conversations and considering a variety of viewpoints without viewing some as “right” and others as “wrong.”
  • Looking for answers to solutions or ways to capitalize on opportunities
  • Seeking to understand differences of opinion and the “why” behind them
  • Challenging the way things have “always been done” by respectfully asking questions or suggesting alternatives and inviting diverse perspectives
  • Proposing and taking thoughtful risks while taking the impact on others into account

Leaders who do not act with curiosity limit opportunities for or don’t see the value of diversity of thought and background, avoid taking risks, ignore what they don’t understand, and have difficulty creating inclusive space for dialogue and respect.

Vocalizing your thoughts enables others to compare their impressions and offer feedback that can lead to greater group progress.

Develop Your Curiosity

If your organization names curiosity among its core values or you are eager to see how including more curiosity into your team interactions can enhance performance and belonging, consider these important practices to build your skills in this area.

1. Include others.

Many colleagues are happy to share their ideas and input, but they need to be invited. Add to the invitation list of your next brainstorm or team discussion. What can you learn when you bring together new voices in dialogue?

2. Give and get.

Share how you are feeling about a project or process and ask for others to share their feelings. Vocalizing your thoughts enables others to compare their impressions and offer feedback or ideas that can lead to greater group progress.

3. Develop solutions to identified problems.

We are not only responsible for the identification of problems but also for solutions to problems. Find ways to make things work better rather than simply finding faults and reasons why things won’t work. Don’t stop at just one, get curious! How many suggestions can the team make? Which ones sound most promising and why?

4. Investigate success.

An often-overlooked opportunity for curiosity at work is evaluating what has worked well. While we spend a lot of time and energy fixing what’s broken, we can take many lessons from what has succeeded. Some ways to start those conversations:

“This project exceeded our customer’s expectations. What do we think contributed specifically to this success?”

“Our numbers year over year are up significantly. Which programs or efforts do we think helped with the increase?”

“The conference feedback was outstanding. Based on what attendees responded positively to, what should we repeat next year?”

5. Ask someone who is different from you to offer their perspective on your process or approach. A few keys to remember:

Don’t respond defensively to any suggestions or thoughts about your original ideas. Their suggestions may highlight possible blind spots you may have overlooked.

Invite input rather than leading with statements that indicate you only want agreement.

6. Listen without judgment.

Avoid making assumptions about ideas before they are presented. Curious leaders focus on exploring options rather than discounting or dismissing others. Assume a learner’s demeanor when others share their thoughts.

7. Leave room for exploration.

Sometimes in the race to get things done we don’t make time to explore ideas could yield valuable results or improve on an original plan.

Curious leaders focus on exploring options rather than discounting or dismissing others.

Leaders may already take some of these actions, but it takes great intention to truly invite curiosity into processes. You may already invite others to a brainstorm but watch to ensure that members of the team don’t protect an idea so fiercely that others can’t offer feedback about it. Consider what barriers your current culture may have to demonstrating curiosity at work. Here are some of the most common ones and how to combat them.

  1. Firefighting. If your goal each day is to reduce your inbox to zero or check off your to-do list, that leaves little time for exploratory thinking and interaction. Take the time in the moment to focus on the meeting and stay present.
  2. Fear of Chaos. If we believe that asking questions slows down work and disturbs the flow of a meeting or presentation, or even creates conflict about competing ideas, we won’t pursue inquiry. But if we stop prioritizing efficiency about all else, we can create space for open dialogue. The payoff may be great ideas that reinforce to our teams the value of collaboration.
  3. Defensiveness. Are you worried that colleagues or team members will think less of you if you don’t have all the answers? What if we let go of the binary thinking that there is only one right answer? Sometimes questions aren’t meant to challenge, they are asked to gain clarity. Through these conversations, we can frequently discover more opportunity.

We demonstrate curiosity when we seek to know more, consider a broader array of viewpoints, and invite varied input. Organizations benefit when teams pursue a desire to know more, consider broad perspectives, and find solutions among unique points of view.