Were you like me, and one of those kids who would ask ‘why?’ all… the… time?
My parents must have lost count of the number of times I said ‘but why’ and kept asking and asking and asking until I had a satisfactory answer, and I quite often didn’t.
As young ones we are naturally curious, some more than others, but we all have a natural curiosity, and it seems that as we grow older, wiser, more experienced, we stop leaning into that curiosity. We become quicker to make assumptions, to assume we know the answer, to make educated guesses. That serves us well some of the time, but a lack of curiosity can also have its downside – we miss things, we miss the truth, we make false assumptions, and we make decisions based off half-baked information.
I first witnessed this fading in true curiosity when completing a major research paper for my university studies, when I was studying criminology and forensic psychology. We were looking at the perception of crime in children, and specifically cross studied three key age groups – kindergarten, year 3 and year 6. We showed all groups the same video, which was simply a sporting field which showed a bag on the ground, and then the bag gone, with a person walking through the frame. There was no footage of the bag being taken. The younger children reported not knowing what happened to the bag, asking questions, being curious. The year 3 children started to explore scenarios such as possibly the person took the bag but remained open minded. The year 6 children emphatically decided that the person must have taken the bag.
Curiosity decreased as the children got older, and they made false assumptions as a result.
So, what does all of this have to do with managing and leading people? Just like everything else, when we make assumptions about our people, we often miss really important things, and when we fail to get curious, or even worse, become apathetic, that’s when the wheels can really start to fall off.
Curiosity is a super power we all have, we just need to remember to lean into it, and use it.
One of the key ways you can leverage this super power is to have more curious conversations, more often. Whether it’s in the early stages of recruiting a new team member, when exploring performance issues or during weekly catch ups, having curious conversations is essential to truly understanding your people, what’s really going on with them, and what this means for them at work.
Let’s take the job interview for example, instead of asking surface level questions like ‘why did you apply for this job’ ask better, more curious questions like ‘describe the type of business you want to join, from a cultural and leadership perspective.’. You can see straight away that the quality of the questions will change the quality of responses you get. But don’t stop there, always be ready to ask for more information, further clarification, additional details.
Same applies when we are talking to our current team members. So often speaking to employers who are frustrated by an employee, or are concerned about the employees’ job satisfaction, or have someone who is a flight risk and actively looking elsewhere, my first question is ‘have you spoken to them to find out what’s really going on?’. The answer is, essentially no. They have jumped to assumptions, decided there is no point, have the false belief that the employee won’t speak to them about it. All that is required is one, or possibly several, curious conversations to really understand what is happening, and once you know that – you have the knowledge you need to take action and do something about it.
Just as Stephen Covey says: “seek first to understand, and then to be understood”. Until we get curious enough to want to really understand our people, we can never really leverage their potential, solve any problems and make the best decisions possible for our people and our business.
When we aren’t curious and aren’t prepared to have these curious conversations, the risks are high. We miss red flags, subtle signs and potential solutions. Problems become bigger than they ever needed to be, and we make poor decisions which are bad for business.
Whilst it may be the inner nerd in me, I really do believe curiosity is cool. So, use this super power to your advantage, get curious, have curious conversations, ask great questions and get the knowledge and intel you need to get the best out of your team.