Leadership Qualities: Curiosity.


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Photos courtesy of Joseph Rosales, Ashes Sitoula, Alice Achterhof, Clever Visuals, Margaux Olverd, Galaxy Vision, Yifei Chen, Alex Simpson, and Alex Holyoake on Unsplash.

Effective leaders who ask questions are rewarded with connections to people, much needed answers, access to other leaders, different perspectives, the glow of humility and much more (Maxwell, 2014).

 Imagine the scene between a mother and her child that inspired the famous song by Doris Day,

When I was just a little girl
I asked my mother, what will I be
Will I be pretty, will I be rich
Here’s what she said to me.

Que Sera, Sera,
Whatever will be, will be, will be,
The future’s not ours, to see, yeah
Que Sera, Que Sera, Que Sera (Livingston & Evans, 1956).  

To Psychologists, “Curiosity is a pleasant motivational state involving the tendency to recognize and seek out novel and challenging information and experiences… the rewards appear to come from the process of integrating varied and complex information and experiences rather than simply the positive affect associated with it” (https://psychology.iresearchnet.com/social-psychology/personality/curiosity/).  

 So, back to our mother and child.  This patient mother wisely taught her child to be patient as life would reveal its answers as it is lived. However, there are other adults who are annoyed at the natural curiosity of children as they ask question after question about how things work – the sun, the moon, the animals, mummy and daddy, school, the doctor, and more.  And with every answer, another question is waiting in the wings.  

In such moments, exhausted and frustrated parents have been known to utter the familiar proverb, curiosity killed the cat.  Other variations depending on cultural norms could be:  “Why are you so nosy?” “Why are you so inquisitive?”  “Why are you always up in my business?”  And, what every Jamaican child (pickney) has heard, “Pickney, yu too faas!”


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Sadly, these initial experiences teach us to curb that instinct to ask questions about the world.  However, leaders recognize that curiosity is a necessary ingredient for building relationships, decision-making, problem solving, and innovation.

Results from an experiment using brain imaging technology has shown that curiosity appears to be driven by the same neurobiological process as physical hunger.  In their study titled, “Hunger For Knowledge: How The Irresistible Lure of Curiosity Is Generated In the Brain,” Johnny King Lau and his colleagues showed that “curiosity biases our decision-making by recruiting the same incentive motivation process as extrinsic rewards (e.g. foods)” (https://digest.bps.org.uk/2018/12/03/explaining-the-power-of-curiosity-to-your-brain-hunger-for-knowledge-is-much-the-same-as-hunger-for-food/).  So, curiosity is sustained by the anticipation of satisfaction in the answer being sought.

Research has also shown how curiosity can be used to modify behaviors.  In a series of health-related experiments, Polman and his colleagues showed that piquing people’s interest in healthy lifestyle choices could create behavior change.  Once curiosity was triggered, individuals tended to make better choices from the selections offered, like fresh fruit and vegetables over sugary treats, and also choosing to climb the stairs instead of riding the elevator (American Psychological Association, 2016).  

Therefore, curiosity has serious implications for leaders who seek to influence their team to accomplish established goals.  

Field study data showed how curiosity improved a group of artisans’ creativity over a two-week period.  Just a one-unit increase in curiosity (for instance, a score of 6 rather than 5 on a 7-point scale) was associated with 34% greater creativity in the number and styles of pieces they had created.  

Another study was conducted in 10 call centers.  Baseline measures of employee curiosity were compared to a job satisfaction survey at four weeks.  The results were clear: “(1)The most curious employees sought the most information from coworkers; and, (2) The information helped them in their jobs—for instance, it boosted their creativity in addressing customers’ concerns” (Gino, 2018).

Research findings have shown that curiosity is associated with less defensive reactions to stress and less aggressive reactions to provocation. Data from a study of 120 employees showed that natural curiosity was associated with better job performance based on evaluations by their direct bosses (https://hbr.org/2018/09/curiosity).

 Other ways in which curiosity provides benefits to leaders and organizations include:

  1. 1. Building positive relationships quickly (https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbescoachescouncil/2017/08/21/how-curiosity-can-elevate-your-leadership-game/#5014029e7ceb)
  2. 2. Determine interest in an issue and build bridges of collaboration (https://www.leadersinstitute.com/leadership-quality-curiosity/)
  3. 3. Fewer decision-making errors and reduced group conflict (https://hbr.org/2018/09/curiosity)
  4. 4. Builds adaptability (https://www.forbes.com/sites/jeffboss/2016/05/22/embrace-curiosity-4-ways-questioning-makes-you-a-better-leader/#25a572d5b640)

 So don’t throw away your curiosity just yet.  It has been said that “Curiosity killed the cat, but satisfaction brought it back.”  I hope that I will satisfy some of your curiosity in the questions that I have answered from teen girls and boys as they wrestle with the issues of life.  See for yourself in Dear Little Sister and Dear Little Brother at http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/KeishaAMitchellPhD  and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zfPWaPCJ0vE  .



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