Curiosity May Have Killed the Cat, But Grows Managers into Leaders

By Anne Quiello, TLG Senior Consultant

Have you ever watched a toddler go from experience to experience, testing how things work, doing physics experiments by dropping everything her little hands can hold? It seems her brain is trying to grow as fast as possible by staying curious-developing and storing new learning. She will eventually enter school which will replace her curiosity-based learning with structured development designed to help her “measure up” through test scores, grade promotion, and university standards. She will learn how to say smart things and give smart answers. Unfortunately, she is not likely to learn to ask smart questions.

Children are our greatest resource because children are the greatest questioners.

– Hal Gregersen, Executive Director, MIT Leadership Center

How important is curiosity to moving into greater levels of leadership responsibility? Consider Steve who is denied a promotion due to how he treats colleagues and direct reports. He suffers no fools and intimidates those he thinks are unintelligent, slow or otherwise don’t get it. His behavior has led to little or no critical collaboration, low team morale and poor quality results. If only he could recognize how he is perceived and the impact he has on others. Should Steve take the opportunity to unmask his blind spots and learn and adopt more emotionally intelligent reactions, then he benefits through improved performance for himself, his team, and the organization.

Self-Awareness is indispensable in leadership, allowing leaders to harness their own competencies for the greatest positive impact on others.

– Daniel Goleman, Psychology and Emotional Intelligence Journalist and Author

Curiosity about ourselves sends the message to others that we are open, enabling a greater foundation of leadership trust. In our three decades of assessing and coaching leaders, we have found that selfawareness in leaders leads to greater organizational effectiveness as colleagues are more likely to collaborate and employees engage more with leaders who seek to know themselves more clearly.

Custom 360 Feedback assessments, personality tests, structured behavioral interviews, and many other methods of assessment enable leaders to leverage their curiosity and uncover potential blind spots. As well, partnering with an effective leadership coach can facilitate the leader’s journey of continued selfawareness. Leadership coaches support leaders as they challenge assumptions about themselves and become curious about issues that may be holding them back. Good coaches enable leaders to have accelerated personal and professional growth.

How important is curiosity in our interactions with others? According to research published in a 2016 Harvard Business Review article by Rob Cross, Reb Rebele, and Adam Grant, “time spent by managers and employees in collaborative activities has ballooned by 50% or more.” If the demands for collaboration have increased, yet we are seemingly engaged in less connective dialogue, how do we reconnect in a meaningful and productive way?

You guessed it…cultivate curiosity. Consider asking more open-ended questions, such as what, how and a few why questions, suspending judgement, listening for understanding, and observing the emotions in others and oneself when in dialogue. Pre-plan important discussions, anticipate the emotions of others and what strategies to employ for remaining curious.

Remaining curious during dialogue with others multiplies the results of trust-building through openness, and collaboration critical to meeting the demands of today’s work. In Francesca Gino’s 2018 Harvard Business Review article, “Why Curiosity Matters,” the author cites her research which supports this: “that curiosity encourages members of a group to put themselves in one another’s shoes and take an interest in one another’s ideas rather than focus only on their own perspective. That causes them to work together more effectively and smoothly: Conflicts are less heated, and groups achieve better results.”

She goes on to describe more findings, “Working with executives in a leadership program at Harvard Kennedy School, my colleagues and I divided participants into groups of five or six, had some groups participate in a task that heightened their curiosity, and then asked all the groups to engage in a simulation that tracked performance. The groups whose curiosity had been heightened performed better than the control groups because they shared information more openly and listened more carefully.”

Be curious, not judgmental.

– Walt Whitman, American Poet

Finally, not only is cultivating curiosity about ourselves and others critical to self-awareness, learning, and collaboration, but it turns out that it is also essential in leading organizations into the future. Too often as leaders, we feel we must demonstrate that we are more competent than the rest. We worry that if we ask too many questions we may be thought of as less capable or competent. Research has shown that by asking questions and listening to those in our organization, we are actually perceived as more competent and worthy of trust. And our decision-making becomes more enriched with what we learn than if we didn’t ask the right questions.

Asking critical questions and listening as we navigate a new role or travel to a new country, city, store, field operation, manufacturing site, etc. uncovers the unknown and serves as a model of leadership behavior that others are more likely to emulate. It can be uncomfortable to be in a situation where we don’t know what we don’t know, yet, leadership by curiosity fosters moving away from automatic judging of others’ perspectives and toward curiosity about new ideas, problems revealed, and proposed solutions.

Hal Gregersen, Executive Director of the MIT Leadership Center, researches, writes, and speaks on “The Power of Questions.” He describes how successful leaders he has interviewed and studied learn to ask the right questions. Some start out the day, asking themselves, “What am I dead wrong about today?” Others seek to find out, “what’s working and what’s not, and why?” He asks leaders “what are the (2) questions you are wrestling with most?” The questions we ask drive what we see, so pay attention to the questions that matter most about yourself, others, and the organization. Stay curious.

I have no special talents, I am only passionately curious.

– Albert Einstein

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