If I were to think of all the valuable traits of an employee today, I don’t know that I would have placed “curiosity” at the top of the list. After finally finishing Brené Brown’s Dare to Lead, I’ve reassessed my opinion.
Brown specifically contrasts the curious worker to the “knower.”
The knower in us (our ego) either races to beat everyone in the room with an answer that may or may not address the real issues, or thinks: I don’t want to talk about this because I’m not sure how it’s going to go or how people are going to react.
The knower is a fearful individual that either hides or rushes to cover a lack of depth of expertise. I’ve certainly worked with plenty of knowers, and I’ve acted like a knower at different points in my career.
Now look at the difference between the knower and the person willing to be curious.
Curiosity is an act of vulnerability and courage. Researchers are finding evidence that curiosity is correlated with creativity, intelligence, improved learning and memory, and problem solving.
Having the courage to ask questions is incredibly important for both the worker and the manager. There is, of course, the burden of somebody who ask questions all the time without making any forward momentum on their own. That is also an example of a need for increased confidence in the worker.
Going back to the person who’s willing to ask, managers benefit tremendously when workers don’t simply forge ahead with an assignment without understanding what’s expected of them. Brown makes this point in her book, as well. If a worker gets so far down the wrong pathway without ever checking in, then there is a lot required in order to undo all of that effort.
Let’s take it beyond the inquisitive employee who checks in enough.
What about the person that can anticipate what challenges may arise in a new project? This person can ask questions that are even more helpful. These inquiries open up entirely new ways of thinking for everyone involved in the project.
Taking it a step even further, what if a curious person has time to brainstorm on the full potential of the project? Again, the project can turn into much more than what the initial idea was.
All of this starts with creating an environment in which it is safe to be curious. If an employee can take chances and not be shut down harshly, then there is a much greater chance that the employer will take chances again in the future. This is so necessary in order for companies to keep evolving and for employees and managers to be healthy.
I circled the words “horizon conflict” when I came across them in Brown’s book. She describes horizon conflict as the difference in interests between leaders that are responsible for short-term or long-term needs. If the CEO has to focus several years ahead, then the operations person needs to be focusing on what’s happening today and in the next six months.
This reminds me of the kind of conflict that can happen between sales and marketing teams. Sales teams have to hit their numbers today and for the month while marketing is focusing on positioning. There is a much different expectation for each of these teams, and these expectations can get in the way of one another if not carefully coordinated.
Brown points out that curiosity benefits people in rising conflicts. Ideally, each side of the conflict wonders what the other side needs.
The knower focuses only on what he or she needs and is not concerned with the other side.
More about the Knower
The entire concept of the “knower” reminded me of a book called Flying without a Net: Turn Fear of Change into Fuel for Success by Thomas J. DeLong.
In order to get better at something, we have to go through a process of unlearning that he demonstrates through a series of quadrants. The example I compared it to was improving typing skills from the “hunting and pecking” the right keys approach to learning the more formal way.
There are a lot of mistakes before a person can get really comfortable with a new way of doing things. This process can be incredibly uncomfortable to undertake in a professional setting.
We have a choice. We can deal with the limitations of what we know, or we can engage in the messy steps necessary to learn and to explore.
If you’re in management, you also have the choice of whether or not you will create an environment in which people can go through the messiness of learning. Yes, we have to be concerned about the final deliverable, but we have to keep improving our processes.
Being curious takes courage. Learning takes courage.
I’d argue that the costs of not learning are much higher.
Be courageous. Be curious.
Featured photo by Joe Green