I love watching kids interact with the world. They have a wonderful ability to treat even the most mundane things as fantastic discoveries. My youngest daughter can always get me to smile with the way she lights up when she learns something new. Her excitement is infectious as she announces to the room in a very loud voice what she has observed.
It doesn’t matter if it is playing with sticks in the mud, having a pretend picnic, or challenging themselves on the playground, kids are constantly interacting with their environment in novel ways. They test ideas and ask questions about the world and how it works. Driven by their curiosity, this is how they grow and learn.
“Children astound me with their inquisitive minds. The world is wide and mysterious to them, and as they piece together the puzzle of life, they ask ‘Why?’ ceaselessly.” – John C. Maxwell
Adults and organizations are no different.
As Ken Robinson stated, “Curiosity is the engine of achievement.” If we want to grow and improve as individuals or teams, we must foster an environment of curiosity. We must constantly strive to increase our knowledge of the world around us, including our own business processes.
As leaders, our role is to create that environment within our teams and organizations.
What is curiosity?
If we are to foster curiosity within our teams, we must first understand what curiosity is exactly. One simple definition is that curiosity is “the urge to know more.1” Ultimately, our goal within our teams is to encourage everyone to seek additional knowledge. And not just because they are instructed or expected to, but because they have a desire, an urge, to know more.
Understanding the source of curiosity can help identify ways in which this urge can be created.
While there have been a number of theories over the years to explain the phenomenon, it is far from settled science. One model that attempts to explain curiosity is the interest-deprivation model2. It states that curiosity is the result of some combination of (1) a desire to learn something new and (2) the fear that we are missing something when dealing with an uncertain situation. Essentially, our brains generate a positive response when we learn new things. This can either be because we feel the intrinsic reward of achievement by learning something new or because we have removed the uneasiness that was present due to our uncertainty. In either case, this positive brain response reinforces the behaviors that satisfied our curiosity, making the urge stronger in future situations.
According to this model, two ways in which we can help develop curiosity in our teams is by encouraging them to enjoy learning and by helping them see that they have a knowledge gap. Here are some ways that you can incorporate these principles into your leadership behaviors.
Lead by Example
There is no better way to influence your teams than by giving them an example to follow. Exhibit curiosity in everything you do to show them that is what you expect. Let your team see you learning new things and challenging your assumptions. They can learn from both your attitude towards learning and curiosity as well as the actions you take to pursue them.
“The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.” – Albert Einstein
The most obvious way in which curiosity manifests itself is through questions. Show your curiosity to your team by asking them questions rather than providing answers. If we as leaders are constantly providing solutions and answering questions, our staff will never learn to answer their own questions. And it is not until they start answering their own questions that curiosity will finally take a hold of them.
It has been observed that curiosity is at its peak when people have a small amount of knowledge about a subject, but not too much3. If we make a habit of answering everyone’s questions for them, they will quickly surpass the optimum level of knowledge for generating curiosity.
There are two questions that I have found particularly useful in creating the urge to know more: “Why?” and “What if…?”
Asking why something has occurred is very useful in generating curiosity about the past. The only way we will truly learn from the past is if we understand it beyond the surface level. By exploring the past with curiosity, we can encourage our teams to not be satisfied until they truly understand the root causes of their experiences. This is the beginning of improvement.
Asking “what if”, on the other hand, encourages individuals to develop a curiosity about the future. It can expand our thinking, encourage risk-taking, and prevent contentment with the status quo. The goal with this question is to ignite imaginations and improve the quality and impact of ideas for improvement.
If we truly desire to create a culture that values curiosity, we must create an environment in which it is allowed to thrive. This means that there needs to be room for experimentation, for asking questions and for testing theories.
The biggest way in which leaders affect this environment is in how we react to the inevitable failures. If our teams are exploring new ideas and pushing the boundaries of their knowledge, they will undoubtedly get some things wrong. When this happens, we should celebrate the learning that results and encourage them to keep trying.
React Properly to “I don’t know.”
Similar to our reaction to experimentation, we need to be very thoughtful about how we respond to the words “I don’t know.” Many organizations frown on the use of those words because they are seen as a sign of weakness or incompetence. Individuals are valued for the solutions they provide and saying these words indicate that you do not have a solution to offer. In this case, it is much better for the individual to say nothing at all or to pretend that they have the answer.
If our goal is to promote curiosity, a more appropriate response to this phrase should be to see it as an opportunity. Any time we find a question to which we do not have the answer, there is something new to be learned. It is a knowledge gap that can and should be the impetus for curiosity. If we can create a culture that values the identification of learning opportunities as much as solutions, curiosity should thrive.
The one character trait that runs through all of the suggestions above is that of humility. Humility is required to open the curtain and let your team see that you are not perfect. You don’t have all the answers. There is always more to learn. We don’t always get things right. Our assumptions and understanding of our situation are almost always flawed in some way.
If we cannot exhibit humility in our leadership behaviors, our organizations will see our efforts to generate curiosity as disingenuous. We must truly believe in the power of curiosity and our need for more knowledge in order for our actions to have the desired effect.
We must learn to act as children again. Seeing the world as a place of wonder, with innumerable lessons to be learned if we keep exploring.
“Once you were a child. Once you knew what inquiry was for. There was a time when you asked questions because you wanted answers, and were glad when you had found them. Become that child again: even now.” – CS Lewis
- Children’s Need to Know: Curiosity in Schools, Susan Engel
- Curiosity and the pleasures of learning: Wanting and liking new information, Jordan A. Litman (2005)
- The Itch of Curiosity