“By replacing fear of the unknown with curiosity we open ourselves up to an infinite stream of possibility. We can let fear rule our lives or we can become childlike with curiosity, pushing our boundaries, leaping out of our comfort zones, and accepting what life puts before us.” – Alan Watts

I love the word curiosity. It is practical and actionable, aspirational and inspirational. It’s simple and complex at once. It’s a word that has been a part of my vocabulary for as long as I can recall and continues to acquire new meaning and depth. While the image that curiosity once (and to a degree, still) conjures up for me is of that four-year old child who is full of questions about everything, I’ve come to see curiosity as a continuous practice, a skill to hone and a mindset to adopt—a habit. And, I am increasingly convinced that it’s one of the most important habits for leaders to cultivate in order to be effective.

Last year I wrote a summary of 15 Commitments for Conscious Leadership—one of my all-time favorite books for leaders. The book revolves around a very simple model: a line. The authors suggest that we can be either above or below that line at any given moment. When we are above the line, we embrace possibility. When we are below the line, we move into fear and defensiveness. It’s entirely normal to go below the line—and when we have the language and skill to locate ourselves, we can notice where we are and consciously shift to being above the line. The authors further suggest that we can, at any given moment, be committed to either curiosity (above the line) or being right (below the line).

When we commit to curiosity, we are able to learn, to grow, and develop ourselves and our relationships. When we are committed to being right, we can see or hear little other than our own voice and our own perspective.

At first, I resisted the idea that a commitment to being curious and a commitment to being right were in stark opposition to one another, yet, the more I thought about and experimented with it, the more that seemed to be true. And, more often than I liked to admit, I noticed myself committing to being right, and was able to see that when I did so I was relinquishing curiosity.

Nancy Kline, author of Time to Think, speaks about the power of giving another person our full, undivided listening attention. How do we do this? By becoming genuinely curious about and interested in the other person.

When I began to work as a coach, I would find myself getting distracted and, at times, a little bored. When I consciously practiced curiosity and learned to get really interested in what my client would say, that feeling of boredom disappeared and my interest in who my clients were and what they might say next became consistently fascinating. I realized that I could never know what would happen next in a conversation and that each moment was novel (this was also the trick for me in making real progress on my lifelong habit of interruption).

Curiosity means being open to possibilities, new understandings, new perspectives, and new questions. As such, curiosity is a powerful skill to invoke in the midst of conflict. Stopping and shifting to a stance of genuine curiosity about what another person is thinking or saying may well be the most effective tool in anyone’s conflict resolution toolkit.

The Neurobiology of Curiosity

While all of this makes intuitive sense (at least to me), we are also learning more about the biological underpinnings of curiosity. Scientific American reported on a 2014 study co-authored by Charan Ranganath, a neuroscientist at UC Davis, which found that as people become curious, their brain chemistry changes and they are better able to retain information and learn more.

The study itself is fascinating. The researchers asked 19 volunteers to review trivia questions such as “What does the term ‘dinosaur’ actually mean?” and “What Beatles single lasted longest on the charts, at 19 weeks?” Participants then indicated how curious they were about the actual answer. After this, each participant revisited 112 of the questions—half of which strongly intrigued them whereas the rest they found uninteresting—while the researchers scanned their brains using fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging). After viewing a question, the researchers would wait a few seconds and show the subjects a photo of a face not related to the trivia before showing them the answer. When this was completed, the researchers tested the participants’ recall on both the trivia and the faces they had seen. Here’s where it gets really interesting:

“Ranganath and his colleagues discovered that greater interest in a question would predict not only better memory for the answer but also for the unrelated face that had preceded it. A follow-up test one day later found the same results—people could better remember a face if it had been preceded by an intriguing question. Somehow curiosity could prepare the brain for learning and long-term memory more broadly.”

The researchers also discovered that dopamine, which is associated with pleasure and reward, was released when there was anticipation of an answer—not only when the answer was received. The same circuitry that lights up when we get money or candy, lights up when we are curious. In other words, curiosity itself was rewarding!  

Finally, the researchers discovered that curiosity activated the hippocampus, which is the part of the brain involved in the creation of memories. Those unrelated pictures were remembered better because at the moment they were shown, the brain was experiencing the effects of curiosity and more open to all learning. In their final analysis, the researchers wrote: “If anything, it is likely that our results may be underestimating the effects of curiosity on learning in daily life.”

Being Curious

Remaining curious, especially when things feel challenging or stressful, is not always easy. We default to that need to know and to be right—closing off the opportunity to learn precisely when we need it most. For example, remaining curious in a difficult conversation or when a project starts to go south can be counter intuitive—yet it is precisely what we need to get unstuck.

So, what can we do to build the habit of curiosity? Here are a few ideas:

  1. Remember that to be curious requires that we be fully present: that we give other people and situations our full attention. When we notice in ourselves that “being right” has taken hold, we can name it, take a few breaths, and reconnect to a state of curiosity. Become familiar with what the state of “being right” feels like and looks like for you, so that you can learn to catch it and course correct more quickly.
  2. Pay attention to the ratio of listening and asking to telling. Curiosity requires listening without judgment. It requires that we get really interested in what others have to say and what they think. It requires us to recognize that there are perspectives other than our own that could be right—and that we might be wrong.
  3. Recognize that leadership is no longer about knowing. It’s about learning. We live in a reality that is too complex for there to be answers to the challenges we face. Allowing for not knowing, opens the door to being genuinely curious about what might be possible, and what might come next.
  4. Practice self-care. When we are exhausted, not taking breaks, or not getting enough sleep, we are likely to “drift” below the line, losing our capacity to remain present—and curious.

Cultivating Curiosity

As leaders, we also have a responsibility not only to pay attention to how we are being curious, but to cultivate curiosity in others. Mario Livio, author of Why: What Makes us Curious, says in an interview with Knowledge@Wharton:

“Most psychological traits, and curiosity is no exception, have a genetic component to them. The fact that some people are much more curious than others largely has to do with their genetics. But, as in all cases, genetics is never the whole story. In the same way as the nature versus nurture question, the two of them play a role. You can enhance curiosity by doing certain things, by asking questions, by encouraging people to be curious about things. Or you can suppress curiosity as we just noted, sometimes by regime, sometimes by ideologies, and so on.”

This leads us to an increasingly important topic in leadership and organizational thinking—psychological safety. Alison Reynolds and David Lewis report on their research on teams in this month’s Harvard Business Review. They demonstrate that while cognitive diversity is important (i.e, having people in the room who think and process in different ways), it is not sufficient on its own:

“The groups that performed well treated mistakes with curiosity and shared responsibility for the outcomes. As a result people could express themselves, their thoughts and ideas without fear of social retribution. The environment they created through their interaction was one of psychological safety.”

They define psychological safety as “the belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes.” They also note that it is a fragile attribute—it can be “destroyed in an instant with an ill-timed sigh.” Environments where people can fully contribute, that minimize social anxiety and defensive behaviors are environments that are psychologically safe, and therefore safe for genuine curiosity.

Through their research, the authors identified the behaviors and emotions most correlated to high-performing teams: ones that were high in cognitive diversity, psychological safety and adaptability. The words that emerged were: curious, encouraging, experimental, forceful, inquiring and nurturing. These words suggest not only the important of curiosity, but also the ways to cultivate it. The one “outlier” in the group is particularly interesting—forceful, in this context, means: “the assertive expression and vigorous analysis of ideas.”

Being curious does not mean that we don’t hold opinions—it does mean that we are open to being challenged, and to being wrong. This reminds me of one of my favorite “ground rules” for groups I work with: “strong opinions, lightly held.” It’s great to have strong opinions—it’s critical—especially when we are in leadership roles that we make it absolutely clear that we are willing to be challenged and that we model that for others, so that they can do the same.

Google’s research on teams, which you can read about in this New York Times article, also demonstrates the power of psychological safety. They discovered that teams where people spoke up in equal measure and where members were sensitive to one another’s moods and personally connected were the highest performing teams. This is also an environment that supports genuine curiosity.

Cultivating curiosity in teams requires that we attend to psychological safety—that we encourage questions and experimentation. We need to be sure that it’s safe to speak up and that there is no retribution for saying the wrong thing. We need to model being interested in what every person is thinking and saying.  

Curiosity, then, is both an attribute of high-performing teams and a personal habit. We are born with it—and we need to cultivate it. It’s easy to get caught up in being “right” and forget about curiosity, and we pay a price when we do this, both individually and organizationally. Like most things that matter, this requires ongoing awareness and commitment, and like so many of the things that I find myself thinking about and working on these days, it falls squarely in the category of “simple, but not easy.”

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A note: Writing about curiosity was particularly resonant for me in this moment in time. My teacher, Doug Silsbee, whose new book Presence-Based Leadership was recently published (and will surely be the basis of future posts), is the person I most credit with helping me recognize the value of curiosity in my work. It is a central part of Presence, which Doug describes as a “meta-competency” of leadership. Doug is, as I write these words, in hospice, after being diagnosed, last summer, with a rare form of cancer. He continues to write and speak about his current experience with curiosity and wonder. It is remarkable to behold and further evidence of the power of curiosity. He has been in my mind as I wrote this post.