We are born naturally curious – we want to know everything there is to know about the world, soaking up information and experience like a sponge. But at some point our curiosity becomes a burden. Maybe adolescent arrogance, a narrowing of our perspective about what’s important, or simply the fact that our brains start to feel overloaded, means we begin to suppress this basic instinct for curiosity. After all, being curious takes up precious time; being curious can lead us into – if not temptation – uncomfortable places; and being curious brings us face to face with the painful reality that we don’t, in fact, know everything. So we sacrifice curiosity for safety, certainty, comfort and efficiency.
It makes sense then, that we enter positions of leadership (and by that I mean positions of influence, not just positions with defined authority), with a suppressed or even non-existent sense of curiosity. Our job at this stage is to keep not only ourselves, but others – our family, our staff, our community, our team – safe, and a little curiosity can be a dangerous thing. Evolutionarily, exploring unknown territory can get you killed, and if our basic needs are being met, why risk it? Better to stick with what we know and stay alive.Here are three scenarios in which leaders might benefit from a greater sense of curiosity.
1. Be curious with your people
Leaders often feel their job is to give people advice or solve problems. After all, isn’t that why you got the job – to fix things, help others or find solutions? When people come to us with a question, a problem or a challenge, it’s tempting to jump in with a quick response. But in our haste to get things done, if we don’t take time to understand the challenge and explore unknown ground, we can end up providing well intentioned solutions to the wrong problem. Instead of seeing ourselves as expert advice givers, how would things change if we worked with our staff from the perspective of curiosity? Curiosity allows us to ask questions instead of giving answers, and curiosity allows the other person to think, reflect, and potentially find their own solution.
2. Be curious with your team
One of the key benefits of teamwork is being able to capitalise on the combined wisdom of each of the team members. In effective teams the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. How much more effective could your team be in solving deep, complex problems, if you could support them to remain curious with each other? What new insights might the team uncover, what richer understanding might you reach, and what intractable problems might you solve if, instead of ‘that won’t work’, ‘that’s too risky’, ‘that’s not my patch’ or ‘we’ve tried that before’ we coached our teams to keep asking each other ‘how could that work’, ‘what can we try’, ‘how can we build on each other’s knowledge’ , ‘how do these different perspectives go together’, ‘what other ideas are there’, ‘who else can contribute’ and ‘where could we start’?
3. Be curious with yourself
When we experience negative thoughts, feelings or sensations, we’re often quick to judge ourselves. It’s the classic one-two combination punch. We feel something like disappointment about a particular outcome, then we start feeling anger or blame at ourselves for not being good enough. Our inner critic, alive and thriving in most of us, kicks in, and we’re off judging and critiquing ourselves. How would things change if, instead of judging our initial feeling of disappointment, we were simply curious about that feeling – noting it, naming it, experiencing the feeling for what it is, and allowing it to be? How would the feeling change in intensity or impact, how would our reaction to it be different, and how might that lead to a different result? Acknowledging negative feelings and examining them with interest, much like a curious scientist, can diffuse the impact of that feeling, and can be a circuit breaker to prevent the inner critic taking hold.and spiralling you into negativity.
So I’m suggesting that curiosity can help us expand our perspective, our knowledge, our skills and our experience. It helps us to navigate complexity and ambiguity, and is therefore a key enabler of leadership effectiveness. How can you strengthen your curiosity to better manage your own reactions, capitalise on the strength of your team and empower your staff so you can work together to achieve more than you thought possible? Curiosity is the difference between knowing and discovering. Curiosity keeps judgment at bay and encourages consideration and inclusion. So what do you need to do to let your curiosity run wild?