About the Author: Stefaan van Hooydonk is the founder of the Global Curiosity Institute & Business Council Member of Axialent. This article is a shorter version of a dedicated chapter on curiosity and leadership in his book: The Workplace Curiosity Manifesto.
It is hard to be a good leader — whether the source of leadership is being an executive, running a country, or being a frontline manager. It is also hard to find good leaders. An extensive 2015 internal study of twenty thousand executive placements was conducted by the executive search firm Heidrich and Struggles. The study revealed that 40 percent of these newly appointed executives fail within eighteen months.
A failure means the executive left, was asked to leave or was performing significantly below expectations. Consistent with data from other research in subsequent years, the success of executive appointments was no better than 50 percent. Executive recruitment seems to be a hit-or-miss activity. Candidates have an equal chance to succeed or fail.
The challenges managers face today are less predictable than they were in the last century. Solutions to problems are not so easily found in previous successes. The power to effect change requires more gentle influence than formal top-down authority. Especially now, leadership is ambidextrous. Leaders need to be good at keeping their ship afloat while, at the same time, reinventing the future.
Curiosity in its various dimensions is well suited to assist leaders to widen their perspectives, listening intently, engage new challenges, experimenting, learning faster, and building organizations that create results in times of crisis.
What is a curious leader?
In a cross-industry curiosity study led by curiosity researcher Todd Kashdan commissioned by Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany, professor Kashdan posits several curiosity barriers associated with leaders.
- Autocratic, top-down leadership behavior stifles curiosity as curious subordinates are not provided with the opportunity to question or challenge decisions, nor are they invited to explore and share novel options.
- The prevalence of risk-averse behavior makes leaders opt for proven and safe ideas, thus restricting creative thinking time.
- A preference for conformity and fear of standing out from others among managerial peers.
The above points already highlight a number of dimensions explaining incurious leadership behavior. What becomes clear is leadership positions are sensitive to the nature/nurture divide. Leaders show up with their own level of curiosity, yet simultaneously are also adapting their individual inclination for curiosity to the context they are in.
An interesting finding in the research is that when a CEO displays a healthy dose of curiosity, the company benefits both in terms of an increase in operational efficiency as well as an above openness to exploring new territories.
When the CEO, or the team leader for that matter, is high on curiosity, the members of the organization are more likely to agree with the statement that the organization encourages curiosity. This does not mean employees at all levels of the organization automatically feel encouraged and enabled to show up curiously at work.
Next to being role models, leaders also need to establish habits and interactions, so employees are reassured curiosity is not reserved for people at the top.
Curiosity needs champions. The shadow the manager casts is an important driver of team curiosity. In my research, I have established a linear correlation between the number of hours a manager spends on the acquisition of new information and knowledge through reading books or articles, viewing educational videos and taking (e-) classes, listening to podcasts or e-books, and so on.
The more the manager consumes new knowledge, the more the team also follows in the curious behavioral footsteps of the leader. As a result, there is an increase in the hours the team spends on learning to mimic those of the leader. Intuitively this makes sense.
When the manager is curious herself, she will—openly or not—make it clear she values new knowledge in the team. The team will recognize that learning and intellectual exploration are important and will follow her example.
The inverse is sadly also true. If a manager does not communicate in words or—more importantly in actions—that learning is important, the team refrains from consuming learning. Luckily, not all team members mimic the manager’s learning habits.
Some of them—the A players—are intrinsically so curious, that even a non-conducive environment does not stop them from exploring. A-players are not negatively influenced by the behavior of their leader. In summary, curious managers uplift the team and stretch it beyond what they thought was feasible. Incurious managers, on the other hand, stifle the team and hold it back.
Curious Leaders Create Successful Cultures
A 2018 study of three thousand international employees conducted by Harvard Business School professor Francesca Gino disclosed the implications of workplace curiosity and the corresponding leadership support for curiosity. She states curiosity is an important aspect of a company’s performance because of the following reasons:
- When curiosity is triggered, leaders tend to be more intentional and rational about their decision-making.
- Curiosity makes leaders—and their teams—more adaptable to the dynamics of uncertain market environments.
- Curious leaders command higher levels of respect of their followers than incurious leaders.
Workplace curiosity works in real-time. When leaders are more curious and invite surprise about everyday activities, the more it has a carry-over effect on team members.
However, when studying the above-mentioned Harvard Business School research on how leaders viewed curiosity, Professor Francesca Gino found: “Although leaders might say they treasure inquisitive minds, in fact, most stifle curiosity, fearing it will increase risk and inefficiency”.
On the one hand, executives realize the underlying importance of curiosity in helping to implement their firm’s strategy agenda when it comes to product and services innovation, outwitting competition, winning deals, and taking calculated risks in the pursuit of novel and creative outcomes, etc. On the other hand, these same executives are rejecting curiosity as something which goes against the grain of operational efficiency of the organization or that of their team.
A crucial misconception is that curiosity will naturally occur in any reasonably healthy workplace. In fact, curious work environments are rare. They require deliberate and consistent action. Here are some steps to help you as a leader promote a more curious work environment:
- Put curiosity on the team agenda.
- Show up as an all-around curious individual interested in the world, the people around you, and yourself.
- Ask for (reverse) feedback.
- Become aware of your question strategies. Are they open-ended or closed?
- Baseline your own curiosity as well as that of the team.
- Identify barriers to curiosity in the team, create quick wins and build on their success. Ask the team how they can help in creating a curious environment.
Do try out the above steps and explore on your own how curiosity can lead to building more successful and better performing organizational cultures.
I invite you to become aware of how you show up as a leader. Are you showing up with curiosity or with judgment? Are you listening to fix or are you listening to learn? Are you projecting yourself a personal desire for continuous learning and growth or not (what type of questions do you allow in your team meetings; questions that confirm what you know already or questions that challenge the status quo)?
These questions will help you become aware of your own curiosity level, trigger you to make curiosity at work intentional, and help you start measuring progress.
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