Search any list of Habits of Highly Effective Leaders and Curiosity will show up in one form or another.
It will either be listed directly as one of the habits or will be contained within the habit of taking time for learning and development, promoting innovation, or engaging with challenges. There is no question that effective leaders are learners and growers.
According to Todd Kashdan, Professor of Psychology and Senior Scientist at the Center for the Advancement of Well-Being at George Mason University, there are five dimensions to curiosity. They include Joyous Exploration, Deprivation Sensitivity, Stress Tolerance, Social Curiosity, and Thrill Seeking, four of which are directly linked to leadership effectiveness in the workplace (all except Thrill Seeking). The dimension that is most commonly associated with curiosity is Joyous Exploration – “being consumed with wonder about the fascinating features of the world”. We read about how Steve Jobs developed the concept of serif and not serif fonts from taking a Calligraphy course or the way in which Van Phillips transformed the field of prosthetic legs by studying the movement of animal legs. Read, experience, and learn across a wide range of fields and it increases our capacity to form new associations and linkages which ultimately results in a more robust design innovation.
Two of the other dimensions, however, receive considerably less press but are arguably more important for a broad range of leaders. While not every leader spearheads innovation, every leader is responsible for developing people and managing change. The strategy of any organization, team or division is executed by people, and given the volume and pace of information flow and feedback, every leader is a manager of change. The two dimensions of curiosity that relate to this aspect of leadership are Social Curiosity and Stress Tolerance.
According to the authors of The Five Dimensions of Curiosity, Social Curiosity relates to “talking, listening, and observing others to learn what they are thinking and doing.” I would add that Social Curiosity relates to seeking to understand how people work: What motivates them? What triggers them? What their strengths are and how they can be best leveraged? When they need support and what type of support best serves? What is the best way to stretch them beyond their comfort zone in a healthy way?
Let’s face it, while a great deal of attention is paid to developing business strategy, the best-conceived plan will fail most of the time if the people responsible for carrying it out are not motivated, bought in, or even worse, are resistant to it. Conversely, even a simple strategy plan can produce amazing results if the implementation team is fully committed and on-board. A leader who does not have strong Social Curiosity will always be less effective at leading because they will not have the capacity to leverage the talents of their team.
The fourth dimension of curiosity is Stress Tolerance which the article defines as “the willingness to accept and even harness the anxiety associated with novelty.” In leadership, novelty refers to a change, anything new. For many people, the novel and unfamiliar is scary. It poses the threat of failure or loss and disrupts the status quo. This is why many people outright resist change. Others may find a novel idea interesting but stop short of taking any action to put a new idea or process in place because they do not have the capacity to manage the anxiety that arises in the face of the unfamiliar and uncertain. For leaders to be successful agents of change, they not only need to expand their own stress tolerance, but they need to know how to expand the stress tolerance of others.
One of the key strategies we use at Courage to be Curious to build curiosity musculature is to convert concerns or doubts into questions. Worry activates neurotransmitters in the brain that release adrenaline and cortisol and make us feel anxious. Asking questions, on the other hand, activates different neurotransmitters that release dopamine and activate the reward circuitry in the brain. In other words, when we get curious about something, open to the idea that there is something to learn or discover, our brains respond in ways that make us feel motivated and intrigued.
This strategy can be used to expand both Social Curiosity as well as Stress Tolerance. For example, a concern about an employee who fails to contribute actively in a meeting could be converted into a series of socially focused questions:
- What possible reasons are there why employee x offers valuable input 1:1 but does not contribute in meetings?
- How might the meeting structure be impacting the degree to which people are contributing (or not contributing) in meetings?
- How might the team’s dynamics be impacting the degree to which people are contributing (or not contributing) in meetings?
- How might my facilitation or leadership be impacting people’s level of contribution?
In terms of Stress Tolerance, for example, a leader could address a team’s concern about adopting a new CRM system by asking relevant and curious questions:
- What about this system is similar to or has some familiarity to something else we do?
- When has the team successfully integrated a new system in the past to great benefit? How can that past experience be helpful here?
- How can I find out what aspects of the integration are of greatest concern to my team?
- How can we work together to develop an integration plan my team feels good about and comfortable with?
These are two simple examples, but the strategy is clear… both Social Curiosity and Stress Tolerance can be expanded by developing the habit of converting worries or concerns into curious questions.
Adina Laver is Chief Curiosity Officer of Courage to be Curious, LLC, a Leadership Development and Performance Coaching firm. As a performance coach, speaker, master facilitator, and questioner, Adina works with leaders, visionaries, and entrepreneurs to hone their curiosity, a trait essential for success in the rapidly evolving world. Adina is also the creator of Live, Lead, and Love with the Courage to be Curious cards, a powerful tool designed to refine the practice of the Curious Leader.