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“Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others.”

Jack Welch

The shadow that a manager casts on the team is one of the biggest drivers of productivity, engagement, and the feeling of well-being of the team. Those managers who do this well uplift the team. Those who don’t stifle it. The key to effective task management and people leadership is curiosity. 

Curious organizations are more successful than incurious ones, especially in times of change. Not only are they constantly looking for ways to improve their current operations, but they are also constantly scanning the business horizon for new opportunities. Curious organizations are led by curious leaders.

Curious leaders are good at operationalizing the present as well as securing the future. They create psychological safety for the team to thrive. Curious leaders represent a high level of cognitive, empathic, and self-reflective curiosity. They are curious about the world around them, the people they work with, and their own internal conscious and unconscious drivers. They go out of their way to engage with their team, also in times of crisis. They stretch their teams to excel in the present and embrace the future. In communicating with others, curious leaders give undivided attention and are mindful in the moment.

Curious organizations are constantly scanning the business horizon for new opportunities

Though many leaders see themselves as role models of curiosity and openly say they value inquisitive minds, in fact, many prefer conformity and stifle curiosity within their teams.

However, with the right awareness, intentionality and measurement, leaders can become better at their own curiosity and at the same time create the right curious environment for their teams.

Defining curiosity 

Every person is born with a healthy dose of intellectual curiosity. Some people maintain this level through adulthood, many however see their original strength diminish over time. When observing the number of questions children ask, we typically count an average of 75 questions per day. By the time these children become adolescents they ask on average 5-10 questions daily. In some groups it is cool to ask questions, in others not. By the time these adolescents get into the workforce, many have been conditioned to only ask functional questions: “What do I do to fit in?”, “What do I do to stay out of trouble.” and “What do I do to please my boss.” Some people have escaped this early conditioning and have remained highly curious.

The same happens with systems like start-ups. Early start-ups have a high predisposition to exploration, only to see that this mindset deteriorates once the company expands, focuses on efficiency, conforms to rigid standards, and finds it harder to learn from mistakes.

In most cultures, curiosity refers to intellectual curiosity. This type of curiosity defines curiosity as the “drive which helps us to make sense of the world around us.” It is often linked to surprise and the need to understand things. When reflecting on curiosity, one can also observe two additional aspects of curiosity: our interest in the people around us (empathic curiosity) and our desire to understand our inner selves: our values, our purpose, our deeper (limiting) beliefs (self-reflective curiosity).

Curiosity is often linked to individuals, yet systems like teams, organizations – even societies – can also be curious (or not).

Curiosity about the world leads to innovation, curiosity about others leads to empathy and curiosity about our deeper selves leads to resilience, groundedness and a feeling of balance and wellness. Curiosity is often linked to individuals, yet systems like teams, organizations—even society—can also be curious (or not).

My definition of curiosity, which both encompasses individuals and systems, is the following: “Curiosity is the mindset to challenge the status quo, to explore, discover and learn.”

Why curiosity, why now?

Since the beginning of the century and more specifically in the post Covid-19 era, the world of business has been changing dramatically. In times of radical change, leaders realise that milking past successes will not take them very far in the future. As a result, good leaders embrace openness towards an unknown future. Those leaders that balance both exploitation and exploration well keep their organizations competitive. Saying this is easy, doing this is harder. Intentional Curiosity is of paramount importance in times of change.

A 2018 study by the Harvard Business School highlights three insights about importance and implications of workplace curiosity.

  1. Curiosity is more important than previously thought. In times of industrial stability, curiosity is limited to continuous improvement as products and services remain relevant for many years. Eastman-Kodak was able to sell its products and services for 100 years given the world of analogue photography did not change much. Once digital photography replaced analogue photography, Eastman-Kodak had lost its exploration mindset. Companies find their environments change constantly and need to be open to respond to changes if they want to remain competitive
  2. Companies can change the way they approach curiosity. By making small changes to the design of their organization and the ways they manage employees, leaders can encourage curiosity and improve their companies. When Satya Nadella became CEO at Microsoft in February 2014, one of the first things he did was to change this ingrained culture of “know-it-all” behaviour. He replaced it with a culture where “learn-it-all” was the norm, where leaders could admit they did not have all the answers and as a result, invite the entire team to collectively come up with the solution.
  3. Most leaders stifle curiosity. Though most leaders say they value inquisitive minds, in fact most stifle curiosity through the conformist cultures they create and through the belief that curiosity jeopardises efficiency and increases risk. On the one hand, executives realize the underlying importance of curiosity in helping to implement their firm’s strategy agenda when it comes to product and services innovation, outwitting competition, winning deals, taking calculated risks in the pursuit of novel and creative outcomes, etc. On the other hand, these same executives are rejecting curiosity as something which goes against the grain of operational efficiency of the organization.

Why is workplace curiosity so hard?

Research by the Global Curiosity Institute revealed this say/do disconnect; though 90 percent of leaders believe investing in curiosity to drive innovation is a worthwhile investment, only 50 percent are actively inviting curious behaviour into their own team worried that spending time on innovation distracts the team from being efficient.

In a cross-industry curiosity study funded by the German healthcare and life-sciences giant, Merck, led by curiosity researcher Todd Kashdan, several curiosity barriers associated with leaders were found:

1. Autocratic, top-down leadership behaviour stifles curiosity as curious subordinates are not provided with the opportunity to question or challenge decisions, nor are they invited to explore and share novel options.

2. The prevalence of risk-averse behaviour makes leaders opt for proven and safe ideas, thus restricting creative thinking time.

3. A preference for conformity and fear of standing out from others among managerial peers.

In many organizational cultures, the downside of taking risks is often greater than the upside for managers. Innovation is a lonely business when things go south, and potential failures are limiting career mobility and decrease financial gain.

At the same time, there is a common belief that the positional power of the leader comes with the burden of superior knowledge. Once in power, the leader is supposed to look strong, articulate all questions before the team does, have all the answers. His expert status should not be challenged. In the eyes of many leaders, not knowing is considered as a sign of weakness. Unbeknownst to many managers however, respect increases every time the manager says ‘I do not know’ in the team. If at that moment the manager acts with confident humility and invites the team to co-create answers team engagement rises. 

Role models

That the daily actions of curious leaders affect team members has been researched by Spencer Harrison, Associate Professor of Organizational Behaviour at INSEAD. Professor Harrison studied the daily logs of teams of scientists working in desert-based Mars simulators. He used linguistic text analysis of team leads and checked how often question marks (an indicator of asking questions) were used, as well as exclamation points (a reflection of surprise).

Innovation is a lonely business when things go south, and potential failures are limiting career mobility and decrease financial gain.

He then correlated this to the logs of the team members in terms of their use of curious language: simply put whether the team members used words like “invent,” “create,” “discover,” “new,” “novel,” “different,” etc. He found a standard deviation in question marks and/or exclamation points the day before also led to a change in standard deviation of the use of curious words of the team members the day after.

Curious leaders invite ideas from their teams and create the right trusting environment, where asking questions, even dissenting ones, is encouraged and celebrated. They are role models and are successful at driving changes given that they are curious individuals themselves. Curious leaders display confident humility: they are not projecting that they know everything. Instead, they are confident to acknowledging openly they don’t have all the answers yet are curious to find them together with the team.

Curiosity needs champions. The shadow the manager casts is an important driver for teams. Research by the Global Curiosity Institute has established a linear correlation between the numbers of hours a manager spends on the acquisition of new information and knowledge through reading books or articles, viewing educational videos and taking (e-) classes, listening to podcasts or e-books, and so on. The more the manager consumes new knowledge, the more the team also follows in the curious behavioural footsteps of the leader. As a result, there is an increase in the hours the team spends on learning to mimic those of the leader. Intuitively this makes sense.

When the manager is curious herself, she will—openly or not—make it clear she values new knowledge in the team. The team will recognize that learning and intellectual exploration is important and will follow the manager’s example.

The reverse sadly is also true. If a manager does not communicate in words or—more importantly in actions—that learning is important, the team stops growing and learning too.

In short: good managers uplift the team and stretch it beyond what they thought was feasible. Bad managers, on the other hand, stifle the team and hold it back. Few companies are actively measuring the effectiveness of their leaders with data, even fewer companies are proactively targeting individualized training and coaching for leaders receiving critical scores from their teams.

How leaders can get better at curiosity

Curiosity is a muscle, just like any muscle in the physical body. The more we use it, the bigger and stronger it gets. Stop using it, and it atrophies, becomes weak, and is prone to damage. With the right awareness and with objective measurement, we can all learn to become intentionally curious leaders. The opportunity for leaders is dual. Firstly, leaders can become (even) more productively curious as professionals themselves and secondly, leaders can create a conducive environment in their team and thus invite curiosity to flourish.

In both instances there are three concepts to keep in mind: Awareness, Intentionality and Measurement.

Awareness is the result of proactive third person reflection, namely observing oneself through the eyes of an outsider. Once one is aware of the status-quo, the leader has the opportunity to change those areas which can need to be strengthened. When this is clear, qualitative and quantitative measurements can be used to baseline and keep track of ongoing progress.

Curiosity is a muscle, just like any muscle in the physical body, the more we use it, the bigger and stronger it gets

To make this actionable: here are some questions:

Awareness: If you are true to yourself, would you say you are an all-round curious individual interested in the world, the people around you, and yourself? When with other people do you find yourself “listening-to-fix” or “listening-to-learn.” Are you showing up at work with judgement or with curiosity? Do you ask more ‘open’ than ‘closed’ questions? Do the members in your team feel safe to share their ideas and feedback?

Intentionality: Do you have a plan to maintain and strengthen your curiosity about the world, about your relationships with others and about your inner drivers? Are you putting curiosity on the team agenda? Are you identifying barriers to curiosity in the team, creating quick wins and building on their successes? Are you openly inviting the team to co-create a curious environment?

Measurement: Are you asking for reverse feedback from your team and asking them how well you are doing? Are you asking your peers or employees how curious you are showing up in meetings? Are you open to baseline your own curiosity as well as that of the team?

Are you curious to learn more: this text is adapted from the leadership chapter from the book: The Workplace Curiosity Manifesto, by Stefaan van Hooydonk

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