Mia is always energized by her interactions with customers. Every conversation yields another insight that she can’t wait to do something about.
Because of his genuine interest in learning more about his staff, Ty uncovers an employee’s passion for solving puzzles and is able to adjust her job responsibilities to include trouble shooting customer problems.
Juan’s favorite word is ‘why’. He can’t get through a conversation without digging into why people do what they do, why things work as they do, and why the organization conducts business as it does. Sometimes others can answer his questions. Sometimes they can’t. But this always inspires a lively conversation about how to improve the way things get done.
Strip away the details of each of these situations, and at the core you’ll find a leader who’s demonstrating curiosity. Curiosity about customers. Curiosity about employees. Curiosity about the work itself.
The notion that a spirit of inquiry is important to leadership success isn’t new. Curiosity is one of the top 5 character strengths identified by positive psychology researchers Selligman and Peterson most closely linked to fulfillment and happiness. Todd Kashdan seconds this in his recent book, Curious?:Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life. Rod Kurtz, guest lecturer at Wharton indicates that ‘insatiable curiosity is a key to great leadership.’ And in his research-based book, The Corner Office, Adam Bryant identified ‘passionate’ curiosity as one of the five essentials for executive success.
But here’s the little secret nobody’s talking about. Curiosity is a ‘gateway’ competency . It opens the door, enabling other competencies. It provides the the basis for responding to the complexity and changeability of today’s global workplace. And it allows leaders to deliver bottom-line business results.
Curiosity is no longer a passive, pensive proposition…
It’s a passionate, pressing priority.
Gateway to Other Critical Competencies
Curiosity may be the most helpful competency in business today. Start with genuine inquisitiveness, a bias toward asking and learning, and an authentic interest in others and what they might have to share… and there’s no telling where all of this can take a leader. Up, up and away in the case of entrepreneur Richard Branson whose curiosity has launched airline, submarine exploration and space travel business models.
Curiosity acts as a powerful foundation, elevating the quality and boosting the effects of nearly every other competency one might bring to bear in the workplace. Consider the relationship between curiosity and several leadership competencies.
This leadership fundamental of listening falls entirely flat by itself. The mechanics of asking questions, nodding, and saying ‘un huh’ lack heart until curiosity is introduced. But start with that spirit of inquiry and suddenly what springs from listening grows from a trickle to a geyser. People sense a genuine interest and this can unleash an outpouring of information from which only the curious leader is able to benefit.
You might be able to fake listening, but you can’t fake curiosity.
Working with others to achieve goals is how most of us spend a good portion of our time. Collaboration can be tedious (even painful sometimes). But curiosity can bring relief. While many start from a place of ‘here’s how I do it,’ the curious leader starts from a place of true interest in how others approach a situation, what their experiences are, and what ideas they might have. This changes the energy of the interaction, builds strong bridges, and can lead to remarkable results.
Curiosity also supports coaching. At their core, effective coaches are curious coaches. They are genuinely interested in the other person. They use questions strategically…as a tool to advance insight, understanding, and action. And when those questions and interactions are infused with curiosity, awareness deepens and growth is accelerated.
Negotiations are more effective when the spirit of curiosity enables a complete understanding of each party’s interests, needs, and concerns. It fuels this understanding while at the same time infuses a constructive emotion and sense of human care into what can sometimes be tense and trying interactions.
What would problem solving be without curiosity? Tools, techniques, and meetings can guide teams through the process. But each step of problem solving demands curiosity. Root cause analysis requires an open, inquiring mind. Good leaders help others generate solutions. And curiosity about the experiences, thoughts, and ideas of others is the fastest path toward lasting solutions.
Curious questions are the currency of problem solving.
And, not unlike negotiating, effective selling starts with a clear understanding of the customer’s needs. Curiosity illuminates those needs, builds rapport, and establishes trust. It also can introduce a fresh perspective as solutions are identified and implemented in novel ways.
6 Keys to Unlock the Curiosity Gateway
The good news is that curiosity isn’t a mysterious trait, lurking deep within our personalities or DNA. It’s a competency that can be cultivated and developed like any other. And it comes down to six key practices that unlock the curiosity gate.
Curiosity is all about becoming comfortable with what’s not known. Successful and curious leaders know that this means consciously entering a conversation not knowing how it will turn out and asking questions you don’t know the answers to. It means not guiding others toward the ‘right’ answers you have in mind. It frequently means following someone else’s conversational lead rather than your own. Curiosity means taking a leap of faith, letting go of the need to control, and trusting that all will unfold – perhaps even better than if you continue to force it.
Be honest. How many words does someone speak before you’ve decided who they are, what they’re like, or what they’re trying to communicate? There’s an epidemic of judgment and skepticism in the workplace. Perhaps it’s time pressures. Perhaps it’s confidence that our instincts will guide us. The reason matters less than this: curiosity and judgment cannot co-exist. The most successful and curious leaders have developed the ability to suspend judgment. They engage fully without the need to put people or issues in tidy boxes. They appreciate the value of getting the whole story before making decisions about it.
Expect surprises from every party
The most curious, successful leaders we know approach life with the assumption that people are generally complex and interesting. Everyone has a back-story, a fascinating hobby, an off-beat past-time, or a different way of approaching a topic. As a result, these curious leaders expect to be surprised and enlightened every time they interact with others… and they are rarely disappointed.
Gag your ‘fix it’ reflex
Most leaders have risen to their roles because they are good at solving problems. Yet overused, this skill can at the least endanger and in some cases completely extinguish curiosity. We see it over and over again. Most leaders can’t wait to fix a situation that an employee brings to them. A highly successful and curious leader gags her ‘fix it’ reflex. Rather than telling the employee what to do, she uses the opportunity to engage the other person and learn more.
It takes a smart person to acknowledge that he doesn’t know something. And, that’s frequently what sets the stage for the greatest sharing, input, and learning. Genuine curiosity demands a fundamental belief that there’s no shame in admitting to not understanding. Curiosity always benefits from leading with ignorance rather than ego.
Woo the cue
Successful, curious leaders are not passive ‘consumers’ of information. They engage actively with others. They are on high alert for signals and cues that require exploration. An emotionally charged word. A facial expression. A pause or hesitance. A reaction. All are invitations to dig deeper, follow-up, ask for examples, or just invite the other person to say more. These cues are like traffic signs, helping leaders navigate the conversation with curiosity and purpose.
Gateway to the Bottom-Line
Developing the ability to approach individuals, situations, and conversations with curiosity – that sense of inquiry, interest, and wonder – can affect your own energy and enthusiasm for work. It can also help to build strong relationships with others. But that’s just the beginning. These six keys help to cultivate the curiosity competency… a competency that contributes directly to bottom-line results in countless ways.
Perhaps most intuitive is the way curiosity supports and inspires innovation. Curious leaders model the behaviors required to innovate. They engage employees through challenging dialogue and spark creativity through their questions and openness to hearing the answers. Their curiosity can encourage others to apply a sense of inquiry and fresh eyes to their own work. A consistently full pipeline of innovative new products hits the bottom-line.
But there are many other ways curiosity contributes to business results. Consider talent development and retention. Curious leaders know their employees, what they’re doing, and how satisfied and engaged they are. Through the exchange that results from curiosity, a leader knows when a valued staff member may be ready to look for employment elsewhere or when it’s time to stretch someone with a new challenge or assignment. Developing and keeping talent hits the bottom-line.
Beyond employees, curiosity also impacts the customer. Curious leaders understand their customers, what they want, when they’re pleased, and when they’re not. This genuine interest enables a level of customer intimacy that allows the organization to deliver better products, more targeted service, and greater value than competitors. Growing a satisfied customer base hits the bottom-line.
Curious leaders also appreciate the nuances of cost, process, and other dimensions of the business. They dig deeply into how things work and, as a result, surface opportunities for improvement. They figure out what’s required to achieve operational excellence and this rubs off on others who’ll do the same. Saving money, improving processes, and growing the margin hits the bottom-line.
Curiosity really is the ‘gateway’ competency. It supports and boosts other critical leadership competencies. And it drives bottom-line business results. Leaders who want to be successful need only throw open the gates and start cultivating curiosity.