In my book Launch Lead Live, I talked about seven characteristics of successful change leaders. Since then, I have added other attributes and skills leaders need to enable healthy and sustainable change. One of them is curiosity.
The more I practice curiosity and work with leaders to help them use curiosity to build readiness when leading change, the more I realize it is not just a characteristic of change leadership. It is an essential element for healthy and sustainable change.
A survey of over 500 CEOs to find the essential characteristic for success found curiosity, specifically applied curiosity. The most successful CEOs probed and asked questions. Then they process what they learn to look for new insights and patterns. Their goal is not to validate what they know. It is to discover what they don’t know and new ways of looking at something.
Curiosity is what makes change possible.
What it means to be a curious leader
When you are curious, you’re interested in seeing the situation differently. You ask questions, challenge your beliefs and assumptions, and suspend judgement. You inquire about what is contributing to the current environment. If something is different is needed, you ask why and how things could be different. Your interest is in expanding your base of knowledge, not proving you are right.
What makes curiosity such a powerful tool for enabling change is it can open us to the possibility of change without triggering a stress response. Thus, for people impacted by the change, it can decrease the uncertainty and stress of change. Practicing curiosity will also reduce the stress, frustration and conflict that can arise for you as a leader. It’s difficult to be frustrated and inquisitive at the same time.
Impact of Curiosity on Change
New research exploring the role of curiosity in business discovered it has a more significant impact on organizational performance than was initially thought. One important finding from the study was that when curiosity is active, we tend to think more deeply and rationally about decisions. As a result, we generate a more creative solution.
Another important finding of the study that has a big impact on organizational change was the relationship between curiosity and trust. The research found leaders who ask more questions and demonstrate a genuine interest in understanding were more respected and inspired trust. Employees showed a willingness to engage in more collaborative relationships.
Practicing curiosity during change will enable you to navigate your Whitespace with a greater sense of control and balance.
All of us are born with a natural curiosity. But over time, that natural curiosity can be trampled and diminished. It gets diminished when we emphasize being right or we are discouraged from asking too many questions.
I see a similar situation with organizational change. Fear is one of the biggest reasons leaders and employees don’t ask questions. Leaders fear their initiatives will be stalled or they will look like they don’t know what they are doing. Employees fear being labelled as resistant to change or not a team player if they ask too many questions or challenge the initiative in any way.
Another barrier to leveraging curiosity is the belief people resist change. Leaders with a resistance mindset interpret the questions, comments, and other types of inquiry about the decision as resistance to change.
The reality is the exact opposite. As you and all of us encounter anything different, our natural response is to assess the situation. We initially do this unconsciously. We will immediately make an assessment and often react. But as we move through the change process, the conscious area of our brain begins to assess and take control of our response. When that happens, we start to ask questions. We naturally seek information to make sense of the event, explore its impact and fit to determine our continued response to the new situation.
That’s one reason I teach and coach leaders to celebrate when employees ask questions. Even when they ask the tough ones, or the questions seem to challenge the decision. That’s because those questions signal movement along the Continuum of Change. Asking questions is one of the first indicators you are building readiness.
Whether your team continues to build readiness depends on your response to their questions. And your interest and curiosity to understand where they are in the process, their level of preparedness, and why.
Cultivating Curiosity During Change
To leverage the power and energy of curiosity, we need to shift our perception of leadership and expectations of leaders. We need to move from seeing leaders as some oracle from whom we seek answers to people who challenge us and have the skill to capture the wisdom and insights of the people around them. I have known and coached leaders who struggled more than necessary. They undermined their own change efforts because they believed asking too many questions or not knowing something would subvert their leadership.
I have been guilty of this myself, early in my career and again when I started my consulting practice. I thought, as the leader, I should know the answer when a staff person or client asked me a question.
But as I developed my coaching skills and coaching practice, I learned the value and importance of asking questions. It’s changed my thinking. I discovered that I my role was to help my clients tap into their knowledge and inner power, and capabilities by asking questions. They often come up with a better solution than I could have done by telling them what to do.
That’s not to say leaders can be a blank slate. To ask questions that contribute to developing insights and stimulates creative solutions, you need a level of expertise and domain knowledge. The value of curiosity is it helps us further develop our capabilities while also building the capabilities of our team.
When we demonstrate curiosity, people like us more and view us as more competent. The heightened trust makes our relationships more interesting and intimate.
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 Gino, F. (2018). The Business Case for Curiosity Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2018/09/the-business-case-for-curiosity