People have a natural desire to know more. You can hear it in the constant questioning of young children. Early learning begins with wonder, which turns to curiosity, inquiry and then knowledge, which yields an ever-deeper wonder. The people who designed the Boston Children’s Museum definitely tapped into this. As we wandered through the exhibits, my daughter’s innocent question, “But why, Daddy?” floated up to us over and over again with lightness and ease.
For the most part, my wife and I reward this curiosity. For many children, however, this natural curiosity often gets shut down, as adults begin to feel annoyed by the constant barrage of questions and challenges. Over time, children start looking for the “right” answer, instead of expressing their natural state of inquisitive wonder and openness to exploring all possible answers.
Exploration and possibility is also a powerful place for a leader. And it’s not always easy to stay there. In leadership situations, my tendency was to spiral into attack mode when a question, problem or issue is presented. I even made a “STAY CURIOUS” sign to hang above my desk to stop me from immediately resorting to problem solving mode.
Feelings like survival, danger, judgment, and fear would start to pop up. My wife says it’s because I’m a male. She might be right, but I tend to think all humans are rewired at some point in life to find THE answer and find it quick.
Staying curious requires being disconnected from the outcome and open to the possibilities of what could be. It is the task of the leader to continually invite the follower/employee into curiosity by creating the environment and listening for innovation and uniqueness in the leader/follower conversation.
How to re-ignite childhood curiosity in the workplace
- Refocus When you feel the urge to immediately go to problem solving mode, put your hand over your heart and take a deep breath. This will refocus you and remind you that your role as leader is to empower people and make them more autonomous. What’s it going to cost you to remain open and curious, maybe five or ten extra minutes? In the grand scheme of things, that’s a small price to pay for the benefits you’ll both receive.
- Opt to listen Avoid the temptation to evaluate or analyze what the person is saying. Keep listening. Don’t interrupt, but rather offer the person words of encouragement. Phrases like “I see,” “That’s interesting,” “Then what?” or “Tell me more” all invite the person to keep speaking and keeps you in curiosity mode.
- Ask questions There are many types of questions and curiosity-based questions have one intention to empower the person on his or her journey towards the goal that led the person to approach you. In the words of Robert Greenleaf, you want to leave them “wiser, freer and more autonomous.”
Even if you don’t start out feeling very curious, the good news is that when we act as if we are curious, soon we will be curious. If you find it uncomfortable to be curious (and you probably will), remember you have been this way since you were in elementary school, you just need to remember how to do it!
It’s well worth the effort. Organizations that encourage curiosity accelerate learning and creativity and ultimately create a better business result.