In a recent Harvard Business Review article, behavioral scientist Francesca Gino notes that 70% of the more than 3,000 employees she surveyed said they
In a recent Harvard Business Review article, behavioral scientist Francesca Gino notes that 70% of the more than 3,000 employees she surveyed said they “face barriers to asking more questions at work.” Yet, she argues, organizations cultivating curiosity are more likely to be agile in responding to “uncertain market conditions and external pressures.” Meaningful decisions depend on clarity of intent, criteria and desired outcomes. If team members don’t feel comfortable asking questions, results will be suboptimal.
According to Gallup's 2017 State of the American Workplace report (registration required), nearly 70% of U.S. workers are not engaged at work, which is an intriguing coincidence. We believe it's a leader’s role to set well-formed outcomes and create open spaces for employees to ask questions. Rather than telling people how to do something, they should reach an agreement on what success looks like. They should also negotiate an agreement on criteria and let each team member accomplish tasks based on their experience and insights. We call this model "authentically curious leadership."
Practicing curiosity in the workplace pays off in talent development and organizational results. Authentically curious leadership is the practice of walking a mile in someone else's shoes. Authentically curious leaders know what they themselves think and learn from what others think and experience. When this deeper understanding of others occurs, team members are motivated because they know what they think and experience is important. They feel implicitly empowered and more connected to the organization's vision and mission.
That said, many leaders feel uncertain about how to practice curiosity. They don’t realize that their own brains hold them back. The subconscious minds often blocks out beneficial data, information and options.
Our Subconscious Holds Us Back
Here’s a simplified description of how the brain works: The unconscious mind is chock full of memories of past experiences. When receiving sensory input, the brain attempts to compare it to a past experience or sensation. Think of these collected memories as a mental model of the world. The brain uses this model to draw conclusions quickly and form judgments or reactions. An efficient but not always effective process, that hard wiring limits our ability to consider different interpretations of a situation.
Three Techniques To Set Us Free
Three techniques can help overcome these natural tendencies when a leader wishes to model a curiosity-driven environment. The first allows us to deeply understand other people, the second allows us to “see” all the data and the third focuses on using criteria to free up curiosity.
1. Assume A Blank Canvas
We observe in meetings and conversations that participants react to what someone else says before deeply understanding what they mean. Individuals hear the words, but they assume that the speaker has the same model of the world and the same experiences as the listener. This rapid brain processing only “sees” data that confirms existing experiences.
Instead, the authentically curious leader pretends there's a blank canvas between themselves and the other person. The goal is to allow the other person to “fill in” this canvas with their words, emotions and meaning. Rather than responding with phrases like, “Don’t you think … ?” (a thin disguise for trying to convince someone of their point of view), authentically curious leaders listen deeply and ask clarifying questions that begin with phrases like, “Can you tell me more about … ?” or “How do you see ... ?” This allows for additional clarity and perhaps new insights. When the authentically curious leader does make a point, they invite challenges or conflicting views in a respectful and authentic manner.
2. Prepare For The Unexpected
The brain sees data that supports its model of the world, but this model also inhibits our ability to consider other unexpected points of view. The brain must be trained to consider all the data, especially that which does not support our current beliefs. In business, we make assumptions about our customers, competitors, regulation and technology. Often these assumptions are implicit rather than explicit. If they are called out explicitly and monitored, we can see changes in the world and evaluate whether these assumptions require adjustment.
3. Make Decisions Using Common Criteria
When a group is working to address a problem or make a decision, the authentically curious leader doesn’t debate alternatives. Instead, the leader solicits answers to the question, “How will we know a great decision when we see it?” Note that the question is not, “What’s a great outcome?” When a group can agree on common criteria for a great decision, then each member is free to explore alternatives with certainty of how each will be evaluated.
Leaders who practice authentically curious leadership are able to gain significant insights from others, especially those who don't share their mental map. This allows them to reevaluate their beliefs and select the best ideas from the new data they consider. By explicitly identifying criteria and assumptions, leaders can gain clarity and also track changes in the environment over time that may cause them to reevaluate them. Taken together, these authentically curious leadership practices and being explicit about assumptions and criteria are powerful tools to plan, measure and monitor the environment to create improved results.