Article: Business case for curiosity for HR leaders

Leadership Development

Business case for curiosity for HR leaders

Curiosity is a skill that can be developed. Let’s take a look at some ways in which HR leaders can instill a culture of curiosity among employees.
Business case for curiosity for HR leaders

A large tangled ball of yarn, crisscrossing skeins, knotted in perplexing ways, seemingly impossible to untangle--hat’s the reality of our world!

High degrees of complexity, where leaders have to predetermine the consequences--not just the second order, or even the third order, rather, being able to predict the manifold rippling effects that may follow from an action is crucial. Multiple interdependent variables, “first time ever” situations, unprecedented events, where one doesn’t even know where to make a start! All of these represent the amplitude of uncertainty we face today.

Successful professionals and talent leaders are those who possess the capabilities to thrive in such a rapidly evolving world. Complexity can be very tempting to the curious, and uncertain situations have a certain charm for some. Curiosity activates the first step and spurs the plunge into the complex and the unknown. Problem-solving ability and critical thinking skills come into play after curiosity has tempted someone enough to dive into the complexity. Curiosity or a high Curiosity Quotient (CQ) is clearly a much-needed success factor in the 21st century. Organizations need to create a culture where curiosity is encouraged and nurtured, and it has to be developed as a capability, just the way leadership and innovation are developed and inculcated.

Here are a few recommendations to get going with this:

Create psychological safety

Ian Leslie in his book “Curious, the desire to know and why your future depends upon it” has noted that children who grow up in physically and/or emotionally uncertain environments usually grow up to be incurious. The need for survival and safety trumps the tendency towards playful exploration.

Politically charged organizations stifle curiosity. Employees in such organizations are no different from children living in fearful environments. When employees have to worry about their psychological safety and contend with toxic leadership styles, they will not be curious. All their energy is spent on ensuring they say and do politically correct things, to prevent penalization.

A psychologically safe culture is empathetic, inclusive and transparent. It allows for risk-taking behaviors that question the status quo. A two-pronged approach helps to create such a culture. Firstly, at the process level, psychologically safe organizations have processes such as skip manager meetings, 360 feedback for leaders, Town Hall or Open House meetings where updates are shared by the leadership and employees are encouraged to ask questions. Secondly, at the individual level, managers are coached to establish high trust within their teams by acting with integrity, listening empathetically, and adopting participative management techniques. Employees feel safe to explore new ideas and confront challenges in unprecedented ways because there is no fear of being penalized for experimenting and trying out. Psychological safety provides the fertile soil needed to nourish the seeds of curiosity and creativity.

Encourage conscious ignorance

Sounds counter-intuitive, doesn’t it? Encourage ignorance! But, we are not talking about the usual ignorance, instead, we are referring to conscious and fully aware ignorance, meaning “I am aware of my knowledge gaps - of what I don’t know.” Stuart Firestein in his book IGNORANCE: How It Drives Science, describes it as knowledgeable ignorance, perceptive ignorance or insightful ignorance and distinguishes it from willful stupidity. He says conscious ignorance leads us to frame better questions, the first step to getting better answers. In fact, Firestein, Chair of the Department of Biological Sciences at Columbia University, teaches a course titled Ignorance wherein he encourages groups of students to define what they don’t know i.e. they talk about the state of their ignorance!

Organizations need to take a leaf out of Firestein’s book and encourage similar discussions which enhance conscious ignorance. This is where organizations can create new markets for themselves (also known as blue ocean strategy), and push their boundaries in terms of innovation. For e.g. Smartphone companies talking about how phones can be used for biometric measurements (blood pressure, cholesterol, etc.), or automobile companies talking about flying cars.

These examples may seem “impossible” now, but that’s how discussions of the telephone and airplane must have sounded in the 17th and 18th century. It was because someone asked the questions that Firestein is talking about, that led to these inventions. Someone had discussions around a machine which could convey sound over distances and a machine which could fly. They explored their ignorance, ignited it with intelligent questions, and converted it to conscious ignorance. Then, they sought to find answers to those questions, resulting in the invention of the telephone and the airplane.

We tend to spend a lot more time on facts and information that we already have--which is important. However, we don’t tend to spend time on what we don’t know--which is also important. The reason could be that very often, we may not know what we don’t know. So, consciously encouraging the thought process about what we don’t know will make us aware of our knowledge gaps.

This way of thinking can be simply called “Defining the Blackbox”. For example, if a team receives a new project, then along with the discussions on requirements, responsibility allocations, timelines, etc., the project manager could also include a discussion on “What do we not know about this project/project area, which we need to know?” and thus define the Blackbox for the project. This will help the team come up with knowledge/expertise gaps, which can be systematically closed through reading, training or other learning methodologies. A Board of Directors facing the problem of a declining market share, while discussing the competition’s strategies, needs to ask “What do we not know about this problem, which we need to know?”

A lot of times, innovations, new ideas and solutions may emerge when we spend conscious time and effort on defining our Blackbox. Many opportunities may also lay concealed in the Blackbox.

Establish a culture of inquiry

Well-developed curiosity implies strong inquiry skills, which include the ability to frame thoughtful and critical questions. Faced with a dilemma or problem, it’s important that employees know how to ask the right questions – of themselves, as well as others. Leaders have a huge responsibility to create this culture of inquiry – firstly by modeling the behavior themselves, and secondly by encouraging employees to ask questions by providing a psychologically safe environment - where asking questions is not viewed as insubordination.

Questions emerging from a desire to learn require humility and an ability to give up control. When a leader is humble enough to say “I don’t know, let’s try and figure this out together,” she opens up the doors for curiosity and learning. With the amount of specialized knowledge and expertise required for work, it is quite possible that a leader may not have all the answers, and needs to rely on experts in her team. It also demonstrates her willingness to let go of control and sets up a great example for her team to follow.

Powerful questions are those that encourage critical thinking, as well as arise out of critical thinking. Thinking critically will lead to questions like – What is the exact problem/issue/situation being faced? What are the possible causes? Are we making any assumptions here? Are there any different points of view/perspectives here? What is the information available to us? Do we have all the facts at hand or are we missing something? How did this situation arise in the first place? What are the possible decisions we can take, and what are the consequences of each? What if we did this or that? How might we improve this or that?

In fact, critical thinking is an important skill that employees should be taught as it helps them question, reflect, reason, evaluate answers, and move towards a solution or a decision. Training and equipping employees with critical thinking techniques like 5 Whys, Six Thinking Hats, etc. will enable them to ask sharp and insightful questions furthering their curiosity, as well as leading to new ideas and opportunities.

Measure and coach for curiosity

The behaviors you measure, coach for and reinforce will increase. The competencies used for measuring performance can include a curiosity component, especially in jobs where a high CQ (Curiosity Quotient) leads to high performance – for example scientists, data analysts, journalists would clearly benefit from being highly curious. As mentioned earlier, curiosity is becoming a necessary skill to succeed in an intensely complex world, so it will be required in most jobs, right from the front-line up to senior leadership.

Behavior indicators can help us define and measure the CQ of an employee. Here is a sample list of behavioral indicators that can be used to evaluate curiosity:

  • Displays a genuine inquisitiveness towards work
  • Has a bias towards asking and learning
  • Has a hunger for knowledge, facts, and information
  • Spends time and effort searching for the information required for the task at hand
  • Frames insightful questions to explore and understand a complex situation

More importantly, when such behavior indicators are defined, they provide excellent guidelines to employees in terms of what is expected. So, if a manager wants an employee to increase his CQ, then he can refer to this list, and relate them to real-life examples from the employee’s work. The manager can coach the employee by telling him that in certain past situations, the employee could have asked questions, or could have invested effort in searching for the right information. When coached in terms of behavior expectations, employees get a very clear understanding of how they can improve themselves.

Organizations need to understand that answers to the complex business challenges facing them will be found by curious employees and curious teams. It is now imperative that they add curiosity in their competency matrix, and use it effectively for hiring, employee development as well as leadership decisions.

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Topics: Leadership Development, #BuildingHRCapability

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