In his short but powerful book, “Wait, What?”, University of Virginia President Jim Ryan says that curiosity begins with asking “I wonder why?” and “I wonder if?” He says that “I wonder why” allows you to remain curious with the world and “I wonder if” allows you to remain engaged with the world and prompts you to try something new.One of the reasons we might resist change or avoid trying something new is because of fear of the unknown. There are no guarantees and we’re just not sure what will happen or what the future will bring. This is especially true in times of change – personal or professional. At least if we stick with the status quo, we know what’s happened so far, so we can predict with some degree of likelihood what will happen in the future. In times of change, whether the change is something we’ve chosen or is thrust upon us, predicting what will happen is difficult. To overcome this resistance, replace fear of the unknown with curiosity. Arm yourself with knowledge by asking questions and seeking understanding.
When I think of asking questions, however, I think of a toddler with the relentless litany of “why” questions. I wonder if curiosity can ever be a “bad” thing or if there really is such a thing as a “bad” question? A question, just for the sake of asking a question (also a common practice of toddlers), while not necessarily bad, may be seen as nosiness or wasting time. It can be exhausting for the parents--in the case of the three-year-old--and frustrating for a manager if prompt action is needed and necessary. Curiosity needs to be timely, thoughtful and strategic.
Two tips are worth noting when building curiosity into your leadership practice or personal life. First, sometimes a question just doesn’t have an answer, or at least not one that is readily available. If you ask a question and the answer is “I don’t know” or “I can’t give you an answer right now”, you need to be willing to accept that as the truth and not attribute ulterior motives to the person answering your questions. Second, truly listen when others are speaking. If you ask a question when the answer has already been given, it is obvious that you are not listening.
As a manager, it is important to make time for employees to engage, ask questions, and be curious. Curiosity is an asset in organizations. The intent of curiosity is to learn and understand – learn more about people, other perspectives, even learn about products and processes. The more you and your employees know and understand, the better your work environment will be. Curiosity helps your team deal with change, improve, collaborate with others and build healthy relationships. To help you practice curiosity in leadership, make time to connect with others, practice active listening, and make time to develop yourself professionally – through reading, workshops, and conferences. Finally, be a role model for others to follow. Create a culture of continuous improvement and learning.
Being curious helps you to be more empathetic, as you gain an understanding of others’ perspectives. Practicing curiosity does not require you to agree with the other person. Even when there is a difference of opinion, you can usually agree on something, and asking questions helps you discover those points of commonality and connection. Be curious about how others come to their opinions, even if you don’t agree. Asking questions allows you to relate.
Curiosity increases your intellectual humility. Bill Nye, “the Science Guy” said: “Everyone you will ever meet knows something you don’t.” Asking questions helps you learn new things, and gives others you meet a chance to share their knowledge and expertise. Take the time to be interested in other people—we all have stories to tell and knowledge to share with each other.
Being curious helps you build your listening skills. Asking questions allows you to make a conversation more about the other person and less about you. It gives you the opportunity, if you take it, to truly listen.
Being curious helps you to be innovative and creative. In 2012, NASA sent a 2.5 billion dollar rover to MARS. According to NASA’s website, the rover was sent to answer the question: “Did Mars ever have the right environmental conditions to support life?” This rover is naturally called “Curiosity”. Human curiosity helps us discover new things – new technology, new processes, and scientific breakthroughs. Think of all of the discoveries in science and medicine that started with researchers saying “I wonder if…” or “I wonder why…”
We are all already more curious than we probably realize. You may live where you live because you asked someone about your neighborhood or you drove around looking. You work or go to school where you do because you researched job postings or websites and were curious enough to apply. Most friendships and relationships start with curiosity.
Think through your life and decisions you’ve made that started by asking questions. What happened? How might your life be different now if you had not been curious?