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Nov 17, 2020

Curiosity is not just an emotion. It’s a behavior. In her fascinating article, “Curiosity: The Super-Power We Might Have Overlooked,” author Elizabeth Smith also points out that curiosity is a behavior we can develop and grow. Indeed, to overcome today’s challenges and to create more agile and flexible workplaces, we need to find ways to build a culture of curiosity.

To change behavior or to have more of the behaviors that you want in the workplace, you’ve got to provide people with recipes or a structure that they can understand easily. This starts with having the right mindset.

A Curious Mindset

But the phrase “practice makes perfect” is flawed. Practice alone makes habit — and not always a good one (I could practice my hopeless tennis backhand for hours, but it won’t get better, just engrained). It’s practice with feedback that enables us to improve and raise our game. So to cultivate more curiosity in the workplace, we need to be clear what curiosity looks like and actively seek to give people feedback when we see it.

A curious mindset is defined as one that seeks new information and experiences. Too often in work situations it’s quicker and easier to stick with what we know. We need to change this mindset first so that people are open to seeking these new experiences.Bringing together diverse groups is a great way to make that happen.

For example, in a recent leadership program for a major healthcare trust, I was faced with a diverse group of doctors, health professionals, administrators, and nurses. People were tasked to identify specific challenges that their hospital faced, be creative, challenge the process, think differently, and be prepared to experiment. 

Notably, people had to work on a challenge that was outside of  their own work area or expertise. One group identified a long-running issue with operating areas. They had 10 that were supposed to start at 8:30 each morning, but they never did. With only eight pre-op areas, they could never start on time.

This group had to rethink what was possible. And within 15 minutes, they had found an office nearby that wasn’t required until 9.00 am. It was requisitioned, partitioned to take two pre-ops with a screen. Problem solved. 

It seemed almost too obvious, too simple. But we see this played out again and again. Under pressure we find it hard to be curious. We quickly become set in our ways, with no time to be curious, and then sadly not getting things done as well as we could. Bringing together diverse teams to look at problems outside of their normal scope helps nurture different perspectives and encourages greater curiosity.

(Incidentally, what they achieved in that exercise had a profound impact on each of the leaders. They were highly motivated by having made a big difference and went on to look at other challenges. Their curiosity and desire to make a difference had been ignited!) 

Meanwhile, imagine, for a moment, you are explaining a new idea to your team and someone raises an objection. You’re probably a bit annoyed, maybe frustrated, possibly even downright angry. You’ve worked up your point of view, your ideas and your arguments. So when you encounter resistance, your knee-jerk reaction is to push back, to justify why your view is right, and to re-explain your thinking.

Pause for a moment and switch on your curious mindset: Why is the other person objecting? Why do they see it differently than you? You can then reframe your response and change your behavior to being curious, not just right. In doing so, the key is to really listen to what other people are saying and, as someone I trained once put it, to bite your tongue. 

Opportunities for Curiosity

We need to be clear what curiosity looks like and create opportunities for people to show it. Descriptors help, particularly when presented as evidence of exploring new ideas, experimenting with new ways of working. The use of positive examples helps people understand expectations. Equally, the use of negative examples, or “red flags,” helps people to see what you’re not looking for. 

In addition, if you want to have a more curious workplace, then job descriptions need to include what curiosity looks like, accurately. Knowing what good curiosity looks like, we can then develop the ability to observe behavior to give accurate, data-based feedback. We can also identify the frequency with which curiosity is observed. Similarly, it’s vital to create opportunities — through project work, shadowing, etc. — to observe multiple parts of the business. 

And as more people now work remotely, it’s worth considering setting up agile teams to work on diverse projects and look at various business issues, new initiatives, or competitor activity.

Habitualizing Curiosity

Depending on what research you look at, it takes between 20 and 65 days for something to become a habit, so consider building curiosity as a daily habit. Reflection is a simple technique to make this a reality. At the end of the day, reflect back on what went well, what worked, and why. Review what didn’t go as planned, and be curious as to why not. What stopped it? What could you have done differently? 

By simply practicing five minutes of reflection, we can become just a little bit more curious. Do that every day and you’ve got a new, powerful habit. Maybe even one that’s a superpower.