It’s a department staff meeting. You lead the department, and you are being peppered with questions. How do you react?
Do you answer every single question yourself, or do you deflect some of them to those on your team who are subject matter experts on the topic in question?
If you feel compelled to answer every question, that’s being trapped in “vending machine leadership,” i.e., someone asks you a question (inserting the coins) and out pops the correct answer (like the candy bar or bag of chips).
Sometimes, we get trapped in vending machine leadership by a company culture that rewards us for being the “answer person.” Other times, our ego does us in. Every once in a while, it’s a mash-up of both, fed by a lack of curiosity.
It seems that organizations are claiming to value curiosity, but still discouraging its expression. They promote innovation yet punish failure. They cling to legacy structures and systems that emphasize authority over inquiry and routine over resourcefulness. ~Todd B. Kashdan, scientist and professor, George Mason University
If you wonder how curious you are, pause for a moment and reflect on your answers to these questions:
- Do I feel uncomfortable when there’s ambiguity?
- Do I make statements rather than ask questions to save time and keep things on track?
- Do I reward consistency and conformity because they are the expected norms of behavior?
- Do I label those who ask too many questions as disruptive and difficult?
- Do I look for facts that support my position and ignore those that challenge my position?
- Do I want answers given to me fast, clear, and unequivocal?
- Do I tell the boss what he wants to hear?
An absence of curiosity at work
A state of curiosity survey conducted by Harris Poll shows curiosity is absent from most of the leadership landscape:
- 39 percent of workers report that their employers are either extremely encouraging or very encouraging of curiosity
- Only 22 percent describe themselves as curious at work
- Two-thirds report facing barriers to asking more questions
- 60% say their workplace throws up barriers to integrating curiosity into their work
- 10% strongly agree that their leader preferred new and unfamiliar ideas
Answers are more valued than inquisitive thought, and curiosity is trained out of us. ~Hal Gregersen, Executive Director, MIT Leadership Center
How being curious makes you a better leader
Curiosity—that’s desiring knowledge beyond what you know—is a state of mind that CEOs say is a necessary leadership ability. A deficit of curiosity and a surplus of conformity make it challenging to lead in today’s complicated world. It contributes to bias and lack of diversity, too.
Curiosity delivers multiple personal and professional benefits that include improved performance, mental retention, and happiness. Being curious also improves social interactions and interpersonal relationships because it allows for “comfort with uncertainty, unconventional thinking, and a tendency to avoid judging, criticizing, or blaming other people.”
Curiosity is what separates us from the cabbages. It’s accelerative. The more we know, the more we want to know. ~David McCullough, author and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner
10 ways to be a more curious leader
Provided you have self-awareness, curiosity—filling the gap between what you know and want to learn—is a skill that can be developed.
To be a curious leader, you need to:
- Stop making statements that shut down creativity; start asking more questions that begin with “why” and “how.”
- Probe for hidden or missed insights in the conflict, incongruity, contradictions, and uncertainty the bubble up at work.
- Reframe your definition of failure to allow room to experiment, explore, and learn.
- Be mindful of being too quick to judge or criticize a person, thought, idea, etc.
- Stop insisting on certainty and accept a measure of uncertainty and ambiguity.
- Give yourself permission to play, have fun, and break the rules.
- Listen more closely; ask clarifying questions. See what’s churning beneath the surface.
- Watch the labels you use to categorize people and situations; they can be barriers to learning and inquisitiveness.
- Probe for unfamiliarity within the familiar; look for what’s different and/or what’s limiting in what’s familiar.
- Don’t get too comfortable with what you know; seek out facts that challenge what you believe to be true.
What will you do tomorrow to be more curious and inspire others do the same?
Image credit before quote: Pixabay