Why Curiosity Matters In Leadership

Why Curiosity Matters In Leadership

Corrine Armour (pictured below) is a leadership expert who helps leaders and organisations develop fearless leadership and deliver transformational results. Armour is also the author of Leaders Who Ask: Building Fearless Cultures by telling less and asking more. In this guest post, she asks are you a genuinely curious leader or just a judgemental one?

Curiosity creates relationships. It brings people together—it doesn’t kill cats. In the latest Harvard Business Review (Sep 2018), Professor Francesca Gino summarises the benefits of curiosity as fewer decision-making errors, more innovative and positive changes, reduced group conflict, open communication, and better performance.

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As leaders, when we judge people, they feel it. They may not be sure how or why they feel uncomfortable but they will know there is a barrier between you. Judgment limits our growth, cripples relationships, denies us possibilities and keeps us small. Curiosity is the antidote for judgement as it refreshes our relationships and our perspectives, and it helps move us past cognitive biases

Ari lacked curiosity

My client Ari considered himself a people-person. He had a good life, a lovely young family, and he was passionate about his work. Yet there were always ‘those people’ in his life who thwarted his intentions for happiness and success.

During a coaching session, when I suggested he might be judgmental, he was outraged. Then he opened up to the possibility that his constant judgments about other people created tension and got in the way of his relationships.

We agreed to a challenge daily, for two weeks, he would send me a text telling me when he noticed he was making a judgment, and how he was able to let it go. Texts arrived for two days as promised. On the third day … bingo! He sent an email listing the judgements he had made about others that day, and his realisation that ‘it’s not them, it’s me’.

Ari wasn’t curious. He was judgmental, and his judgments blocked any real relationships from happening. He was disempowering the people he worked with, when his intention was to develop them.

His judgments about himself—constantly not meeting his own expectations—also exhausted him. This lack of awareness had come at a high personal and professional cost.

Becoming consciously aware of these judgments was Ari’s first step, the second was letting them go, and the third was getting curious about himself and other people. After only two weeks his tension levels reduced, and his workplace happiness, relationships and success increased.

During a coaching session, when I suggested he might be judgmental, he was outraged. Then he opened up to the possibility that his constant judgments about other people created tension and got in the way of his relationships.

The curiosity gap

We say we value curiosity. Professor Gino quotes a study of more than 3000 employees. 92% of respondents connected curiosity to job satisfaction, innovation and high performance, and credited curious people with generating positive new ideas.

So are we curious leaders, leading curious cultures? Perhaps not! Only 24% of those same employees said they felt curious at work on a regular basis, and 70% reported ‘facing barriers to asking more questions at work’. How about in your workplace? How often are you curious? As a leader, how well are you modelling curiosity for others?

Asking questions to promote curiosity

As leaders, when we ‘tell’ people what to do, we are crushing curiosity. Conversely, when we ‘ask’ a great question that leads a person to their own understanding, ‘insight’ is involved. Insights are those light bulb moments of understanding where the brain pulls seemingly unrelated ideas together and connects them in new ways to reach a fresh conclusion.

Asking questions that lead to insight has other side benefits too. Insights engage the brain’s reward system triggering a release of dopamine—a neurotransmitter known as a ‘happy chemical’—leaving people feeling good. Insights also activate the hippocampus—the area of the brain responsible for long-term memories. This enables us to remember things better if we discovered them for ourselves. Here are three ideas to promote curiosity:

  • Ask more questions. Monitor your Ask:Tell ratio. Track the times you ask questions that get people thinking, compared to the times you tell them what to do.
  • Use your frustration with others to trigger curiosity. What good intention might be driving their behaviour? What outcome are they seeking? What barriers do they need to overcome? Why do you feel the way you do about this?
  • Encourage questions from others. Reward questions and curiosity with your attention.

A mindset of curiosity is vital in leadership because it creates an openness that allows true exploration. What will you explore today?

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