Why Leaders Need to Practice Curiosity

Posted on Dec 6, 2018 by

By Tina Schuelke, Executive Director – Change Management Communications Center LLC

Are you curious about why our coaches and consultants work with leaders and only leaders?  Unchanging processes, people, products, strategies, and industries are made to be managed.  But change needs a leader.  If no change is necessary, no leader is needed.  When you are leading others, you need to practice curiosity.  The practice of curiosity is essential.

Not long ago, we were working with two partners in a business and their relationship was, let’s say, “stormy.”  One partner, let’s call him, Joe, decided to hire his girlfriend into the firm.  The other partner, let’s call him, Tom, knew all the convoluted ways this new hire was going wrong.

Tom needed to confront Joe.  Tom’s coach advised Tom to ask Joe some questions, like, “What brought you to that decision?  How do you see this playing out given our plans?  What results are you expecting from this new hire?”  Tom’s response: “I am not interested in his answers to those questions.  I just want him to do what we agreed to do!”

Tom’s coach asked, “Tom, what if you replace the word interest with curiosity?  Let’s role play, and I will be Joe.  ‘Hey, Tom, I just hired Allison into the firm.  She can help Jamie until she gets her licensing, and then she can start bringing in clients of her own.’”

“Why on earth would you do that, Joe!?” Tom exclaimed.  The coach sat back.  “Hey, Tom, what if you increased the authentic curiosity and decreased the judgement? Just a bit?  I know its hard.”  Tom’s coach is human, and to be honest, his coach really wanted to tell Tom exactly what Tom wanted to tell Joe:  Just do it my way, it will save a lot of time (and pain and agony to boot!).  Instead, Tom’s coach got extra curious.  “Tom, what brought you to that question?”

“Frustration.  Anger, I guess.”

“Ok, how do you see that working for you?”

“I’ll probably just piss him off. He will get defensive.”

“Are those the results you want?”

“No.”

Tom decided to have a conversation with Joe.  Tom started with, “Joe, I’ve noticed that when we agree on a plan, you change things without including me.  I don’t want that to happen anymore.  What should we do?”

Then Tom shut up and fought his own defensiveness while waiting for Joe’s answer.  Waiting for that answer created a lot of tension, but it also made room for curiosity to grow and show its power and gifts.  Scientists have been studying the effects of being curious—of asking questions and wondering—and the effects of being on the receiving end of curiosity—being wondered about.

What researchers have learned is that curiosity on both ends (wondering and knowing someone is wondering about you) lights up the reward centers in our brain.  It leads to three emotions:  satisfaction, security, and tension relief.  These emotions are the opposite of the anxiety, fear, and stress that accompany threat.  When we feel understood, we relax and open up; we make connections that feel good, ease threat, and temper defense.  We get important work done.

Curiosity beats defensiveness in conflict.

Leaders who practice curiosity tune in to a superpower we all have within us.  We are all unique, and will connect with wonder—our own curiosity—in our own unique ways.  How will you use your curiosity?

Oh, yeah.  Tom and Joe, their relationship is filled with a lot more sunshine now!

If you are a leader looking for ways to exercise curiosity and learn about the various ways it helps you advance how you lead change, contact us at Change Management Communications Center LLC.  We will match you with a coach who will challenge you out of your comfort zone and into accelerated growth mode.