Setting the Stage for Curiosity

4min read

“Good leaders have the best answers, great leaders have the best questions.” – Unknown.

So often inside an organization, people are getting it wrong. It’s not only expected of leaders to have all the answers – it is demanded of them and they are punished when they don’t.

And, as leaders, we often find ourselves in positions that are new to us and in areas where the teams and people we support are truly the experts and know exactly what needs to be done. What role should a leader play in these situations?

Enter my old friend, curiosity. And, if you have been following along with my idea series, you will know that although it is not a cure for all the ails you, it is certainly a good starting place!

Great leaders possess the skillful art of posing great questions, fostering genuine curiosity and humility in the people they lead. They understand that the key to effective leadership is not about having all the answers but about stimulating thought, facilitating dialogue, and unlocking the potential of their teams. 

By asking insightful questions, leaders engage with their team members meaningfully, promoting mutual respect, open communication, and innovation. This ability to ask the right questions, and genuinely listen to the answers, ultimately leads to stronger teams, innovative solutions, and successful leadership. So, what does it take to ask a genuinely great question?  A “great” question hinges on these key elements:
  • Intent: What’s the motive behind your question? Why are you asking it? If you are asking because you truly want to engage the other person in a way that matters both to you and them about a shared topic or problem, that will allow the two of you to arrive at a better outcome for everyone involved. If that is the case, trust me, not only will you get a better outcome, but they will also value you for it.
  • Active Listening: Effective questioning begins with attentive observation. Listen to the words used, observe the body language, and formulate your questions based on these signals. Nobody is a mind reader, but we can pick up on emotions like fear, enthusiasm, or caution, by paying attention to verbal and non-verbal cues. This also encourages you to be more curious, since you’re not busy listening for the answer you want but you’re focused on understanding where someone is coming from. 
  • Softeners: The way a question is presented can sometimes be more significant than the question itself. Start with phrases like, “I am curious,” “I was wondering,” “What would it be like if we,” or “Can we dig a bit deeper into” to create a receptive atmosphere. These softeners help to lower immediate resistance that might arise from more direct inquiries, such as “Explain to me why” and other accusatory openers.
  • Medium over Message: With work-from-anywhere becoming the norm, interactions happen across a ton of digital tools. The platform you use doesn’t change the essence of your question, but it might alter the way it is perceived. For example, it can be tough to think on the fly during a one-to-one conversation, so crafting an email message gives you more time to get it right. Utilize each medium to your advantage, and don’t hesitate to switch to a different mode if necessary. A quick call, for example, can sometimes clarify things more effectively than an email chain.
  • Authenticity: Although this one can tie easily into my first point on intent, I do feel it is worth calling out. Never have people’s “bullshit meters” been so good. Yes, you heard me correctly, we can all sniff out bullshit the second we hear it. When someone is asking contrived questions where you can tell they already know the answer or they are trying to manipulate you in some way, instant fail! Always aim to be authentic and curious.
You might be asking yourself, “How does this approach apply to managing up or managing down?” It’s not about hierarchy or a person’s position or title, but about fostering high-quality, effective human interactions. If you want your team to flourish, you must let go of the idea that you know better than they do. Remember why you hired them. Trust in their abilities, and use your curiosity to unlock the full potential of your organization. Providing you have the right people in the right roles you have all the brain trust you need to unlock success across the board inside your organization. In my experience, the business case for curiosity is well established and gaining traction all the time, the leadership case for it is about you and how you want to show up for yourself and the people you serve. Enter each meeting or interaction with the mindset of discovering what the other person knows that you don’t, rather than the other way around.  Don’t fall prey to the myth that people value you for your answers because they will love you for your questions, humility and curiosity.
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