Curiosity, a core ingredient of leadership

Source: Management Team (25/02/2019); Author: Professor Karlien Vanderheyden

Curiosity means having an interest in situations from which you can potentially learn, or a desire for new experiences. And a curious mindset has many advantages for organisations, managers and staff.

  • We make fewer mistakes when making decisions if we are open to new things. We learn how to look for alternatives and we are less subject to mistakes such as ‘confirmation bias’ (only looking for information that supports our ideas, rather than looking at information that counters our way of thinking).
  • We view difficult situations in a much more creative manner, and so come up with other solutions. Spencer Harrison (INSEAD) and his colleagues did research into call centres, where jobs are very structured and there is often a high turnover of staff. They found that the most curious employees asked their colleagues for information, and this information helped to do their job better, for example to use creative solutions to deal with concerned customers.
  • Curiosity also leads to fewer conflicts with staff. Curious leaders can more easily put themselves in someone else's shoes. They show interest in other people's ideas and are not only focused on their own perspective.

The five dimensions of curiosity

Curiosity is not one single concept, but can be split up into five different dimensions. Todd Kashdan and his colleagues at George Mason University have, on the basis of research, identified the following aspects of curiosity:

  • Deprivation sensitivity: this is the wish to solve complex problems and to reduce the knowledge gap.
  • Joyous exploration: this is about the desire to pick up new knowledge and information, and to then take pleasure in the subsequent learning and growth.
  • Social curiosity: people who score highly in this dimension want to know what others are thinking and doing, and they achieve this by observing, speaking and listening.
  • Stress tolerance: someone who has high stress tolerance embraces the doubt and confusion that can accompany the exploration of new, unexpected and complex phenomena.
  • Thrill seeking: this refers to taking physical, social or financial risks to enjoy varied and intense experiences.

How can you show curiosity as a leader?

As a leader you can exhibit curiosity by asking questions and genuinely listening to people's answers. A good example is Greg Dyke, who took charge of the BBC in 2000. In his first five months in the role, he went round the staff to listen to them, asking them two crucial questions: ‘Specifically, what can I do to make things better for you?’; and ‘What can I do to make things better for our viewers and listeners?’. Furthermore, research shows that staff see us leaders as more competent and trustworthy if we ask questions.

A second way of showing curiosity is to recognise that sometimes we do not know the answer. In this way we demonstrate that we value the process of searching for answers, and we also motivate others to explore.

Finally, you as a leader can approach the unknown based on interest, rather than immediately passing judgement. As humans we often feel the urge to evaluate others. We are very quick to assess ideas and behaviour, even if it is something we have never tried or experienced ourselves.

How can you spark curiosity in your staff?

  • As a leader, you can stimulate a ‘learning mindset’ among your staff. For instance, some organisations not only evaluate the performance of their employees but also the whole learning process that underpinned this.
  • You can learn the ‘yes, and’ technique, instead of saying ‘yes, but’ as we are so inclined to do. When we hear suggestions from others, we like making comments. The ‘yes, and’ technique teaches us to remain curious, and to build upon and improve other people's ideas.
  • Allow your staff to expand their range of interests. For example, you can let staff take on other roles in the organisation, or you can expand their network by bringing them into contact with people from other departments. As a result, they will become curious about other ways of working.
  • You can organise ‘Why?’, ‘What if?’ or ‘How could we …?’ days. People with different backgrounds and levels of expertise come together to discuss potential solutions to difficult problems, and to look at these problems from different angles.

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