Are you the problem?
10 min read | Alistair Cox | Article | Leadership Managing a team
Take one: You’re kicking off a new strategic project, so you call a meeting with your team. During the meeting, you’re asked a question that challenges your thinking. You’re caught off guard. More “why?” and “what if?” questions are fired your way. You gloss over it. You interject. Things are not headed exactly where you wanted them. You move on to the next item on the agenda. There is a lot to get through, now is not the time to be debating or brainstorming. There’s nothing more to be discussed, only actions to be taken, processes to follow and deadlines to be agreed. The project is delivered on time, but it didn’t move the dial. It didn’t excite you. It’s not necessarily something you’re proud of – it’s more of a tick off the list. Then it dawns on you: you are the problem.
Take two: You’re kicking off a new strategic project, so you call a meeting with your team. During the meeting, you explain the problem the project needs to solve, you encourage questions and you ask your own. You facilitate discussion and debate, you explore new angles and new ideas with your team. You play out different scenarios as a group, you find new problems and new solutions. You nod, you listen, you smile – you are open to all that your team has to offer, and they know that. You come away from the meeting feeling energised and excited about the creative new ideas the meeting has facilitated, and so does your team. You feel collectively as though you are onto something special. This time, not only was the project delivered on time, but it moved the dial, it excited you. You’re proud of what you’ve collectively achieved. You realise why: because you are no longer the problem.
Organisations and leaders are stifling curiosity
Chances are, your initial reaction is to assume that you’re always the leader in the second take. You are the kind of leader that encourages questioning, who likes to be challenged, who makes time for debate, who wants their team to learn, to disrupt the status quo and who rewards curiosity. We are all like that, and all our bosses were always like that, right?
To be fair, yes you might try to be. But in the eyes of your people, you probably have moments of being the type of leader described in the first take. You have your moments of being the problem. Your people sense that, but you most likely don’t because it’s not the identity you’ve formed of yourself.
The truth is most leaders, in their own ways, are going some way to stifling the curiosity of their people. They are often the invisible blockers to innovation and creativity. They are often the ones stopping the dial from moving forward. They are often the problem. In fact, research has found that:
- 2/3 workers report they face barriers to asking questions at work
- 60 per cent of workers said they’d experienced obstacles to practising curiosity in the workplace
- Only 12 per cent of workers report their employers are extremely encouraging of curiosity
Five ways to help your people to be more curious
Despite the well-known saying, curiosity didn’t kill the cat; curiosity actually keeps the cat alive. As humans, we are born curious. Anyone who has raised a child will recall the barrage of questions that comes every day. Then, at some time in school age, they stop. Reigniting the natural curiosity we’re born with will ignite better performance at work, better ideas, better decision-making, and importantly, better learning. So, why wouldn’t you want yourself and your people to be better?
By discouraging questions and curiosity, we encourage monotony and familiarity – and by doing so, we face a future of more of the same. More of the same in a world of rapid and fundamental change is the road to ruin and is no way to lead a business in today’s world.
So, what can we do as leaders to help our people feel they can be their original, curious, inquisitive selves? This question has sparked my own curiosity and, having read around the subject, there are a couple of Harvard Business Review published experts, Francesca Gino and Timothy R. Clark, whose work I would highly recommend you read if this subject has sparked your curiosity too.
If this is the first time you’ve been woken up to the fact that you might actually be the problem, I’ve also provided a few steps, based on research and personal experience, that I hope will help you help your people to become more curious.
1. Open your own mind to the value of curiosity
The first step is to realise that it’s not you that’s strictly the problem, it’s your mindset. It’s the long-standing preconceptions and assumptions you have about curiosity that are the problem. Perhaps you automatically, even subconsciously, assume that opening the floor to questions and encouraging debate isn’t a good use of time. Or, maybe you think it will risk the project losing focus; you’ll end up going down rabbit holes you don’t need to be going anywhere near. More problems will arise than solutions. After all, if you have convinced yourself that you already have the answer and it is The Truth, why waste time on other peoples’ wrong answers?
Maybe it’s more about protecting your ego. Being challenged by those you perceive as more junior to you just doesn’t sit right. No one likes being asked questions they don’t know the answers to. After all, in your mind, as a leader you’re supposed to know all the answers- that’s why you were made the boss, right? You don’t, by the way. And that’s why encouraging curiosity is so important.
Many of the world’s best-performing products and brands were born from curiosity. As explained by Bob Borchers, VP of Product Marketing at Apple, the children’s toy Play Doh started out life as a wallpaper cleaner, whilst Super Glue was originally intended to be used as gun sights for the military during WWII. After much curiosity, many questions and explorations, both are now household brands but have very different purposes than originally intended.
As a leader, it’s not your job to get everything right all the time. It’s not your job to have all the answers. It is your job, however, to guide and facilitate your people to find them. They are the experts in what they do. You may not be an expert in their specific area, and you don’t need to be. But you do need to give your people the freedom and direction to think creatively and look for a better way. That starts with opening your mind to the value of curiosity. You need to be vulnerable and open up debate and you’ll soon find that that new project on the horizon is looking in far better shape than it would have been if no one was allowed to flex their curiosity muscles.
2. Start asking your own questions
The next step is to start being more curious yourself – in the way you think, the way you act, the way you lead. I outlined some steps to help you do this in my previous blog. “Why?” should become your favourite ‘go-to’ question. Don’t just blindly accept things as ‘how they are’ and assume they can’t or won’t be changed. Starting with “Why?” can also lead to other important questions, discoveries and explorations that you would never have got to. Just because you are a leader, that doesn’t mean you should stop learning and questioning.
When kicking off a new project and brainstorming with your team, try not to dominate the conversation and questions as this will set the wrong tone, and could lead your team members to censor their thoughts or hold back. Instead, ask questions that will trigger further debate. Don’t ask questions that you already know the answers to, as advised by Spencer Harrison, Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour at INSEAD.
By role modelling curiosity and vulnerability and weaving this into how you operate on a day-to-day basis, this will filter down across the organisation. One example of an inquisitive, curious leader is Greg Dyke, who in 2000 was named Director General of the BBC. Before he assumed the position, he spent five months visiting the BBC’s key locations. Instead of arriving at each place and presenting his vision to the employees, he asked two simple questions of them: 1. “What is the one thing I should do to make things better for you?”, 2. “What is the one thing I should do to make things better for our viewers and listeners?”
3. Reward questions and curiosity
To really ensure curiosity is celebrated and reinforced in your company culture, it needs to be rewarded and encouraged, not avoided, dismissed or even punished. This is all part of building a psychologically safe workplace, one where all employees regardless of role, seniority or tenure feel that their voice is heard – that they’re able to speak up, to question, to challenge.
A great example of an organisation that does this well is Intuit. They run innovation awards to reward and recognise explorations that led to new or improved products or services. Interestingly, they also hold ‘failure parties’ to celebrate failures that may have led to important learnings. As I explained in my last blog, letting your people feel that it’s ok to make mistakes and to fail is key to removing fear and letting their curiosity run free. After all, nothing is learned or discovered unless someone tries something new.
You don’t necessarily have to reward curiosity in a tangible way. The language you use as a leader can be just as powerful in rewarding and reinforcing questions from your team. When an employee questions or suggests a new idea, don’t use judgemental language in your response. Instead, pinpoint an element of the idea that you like and ask a follow-up question: “I like…what if we…?” This opens the floor for others to contribute, and the idea will evolve and lead to more important questions. This technique, known as ‘plussing’ and originally coined by Pixar, is a great technique to demonstrate that you respect that person’s input, that you’ve listened to it and you’re keen for them to continue being curious. Another great method, as explained in this Forbes article, is to ask them to talk through their thought processes around decisions they’ve made.
4. Encourage your people to have interests outside of work
A key part of encouraging curiosity is opening your eyes to all the world has to offer, to see things from different perspectives and realise that your capacity to be interested in lots of different things is infinite.
Life isn’t all about work, and you should let your people know that you understand and value that. The time they dedicate to your organisation is only part of their story. Other aspects of their lives – their hobbies, their passions, their friends, their families – can and will all spark curiosity and wonder that feeds into who they are, how they operate, and ultimately how curious they are about the world they are a part of – including their world of work.
So, encourage your people to have interests outside of work and to make time for those interests. A great example of this in action is described by Francesca Gino in this podcast; the CEO of the first manufacturer of typewriters in Italy made the working day shorter for his employees and extended the time for lunch. So, one hour of the day was used to eat lunch, and the second was used to ‘eat culture’ as a way to expand the interests of his people and ignite their own free thinking and curiosity.
5. Spark their curiosity to spark their learning
If your people stand still, your organisation stands still. Learning is what keeps the blood pumping through the veins of any enterprise. Without it, the beating heart will cease to beat. And, as I explained in my previous blog, a curious mindset is often the stimulus for learning – it’s what sparks that initial interest and dedication to learning new skills and developing.
Encourage your people to think outside of and beyond their current roles and remits. Implore them to move forward and push themselves, to learn things they don’t know how to do, to expand their knowledge in areas they’re most interested in, to get involved in stretch projects and work in collaboration with different departments.
Don’t simply carry on feeding the status quo, sticking to the familiar by helping your people maintain their current, safe level of comfort. Instead, spark their curiosity, spark their learning and spark new ideas and innovation. Help your people see that their career success will be fuelled by questioning “Why?”. Real success will be achieved by staying curious and always maintaining a thirst for learning.
A great example of this, shared in this Forbes article, is that of Novartis. The pharmaceutical company encourages and pays for their employees to take 100 hours of learning per year. They also pay for university tuition and provide access to online training and audiobooks. They even dedicate the month of September to the theme of curiosity, whilst running TEDx-style talks from their people.
How to hire naturally curious people
The story doesn’t stop with your existing people, it extends to new ones too. Never before has it been more important to hire those who have a thirst for learning, who are naturally curious. So as the leader of a global recruitment business, I wanted to share with you a few final thoughts to help you spot the most curious of candidates during the interview process:
- Ask the right questions: Responses to interview questions such as, “What are your hobbies and interests outside of work?”, “When was the last time you learnt something new?” or “Tell me about a time you failed”, can all help to provide you with a very helpful glimpse into the candidate’s sense of adventure, attitude towards risk and level of comfort with being out of their comfort zone.
- Assess how much research a candidate has done prior to their interview: Thorough research before any job interview is a must, but by assessing exactly how in-depth the candidate has explored your organisation, your values, your products or services, even you, as the interviewer or hiring manager, can give you a clue into how naturally curious they are.
- Pay close attention to any questions the candidate asks: Those who ask questions that relate to the broader organisational strategy or culture, rather than sticking to specifics around the role, are likely to be more naturally curious people, explains Gino in this Harvard Business Review piece.
- Assign a task: Set a task or test during the interview process, one that is designed to prompt problem-solving, researching and decision-making.
- Take them on an office tour: Whether in person or virtually, take the candidate on an office tour. Leave the conversation open and relaxed so they feel comfortable to ask questions about the environment, branding, facilities or location.
We leaders are human beings. We aren’t perfect, and, yes, sometimes we can be the problem. We can be the builders of invisible barriers within our organisations – blockers that are so strong that not even the most important questions can knock them down. So, put yourself in the shoes of those who work for you and honestly appraise whether they are encouraged to be curious, or whether you are shutting them down. I hope what I’ve shared with you in this blog can help you see when you might be doing that, or they’re somehow doing that to themselves.
About this author
Alistair has been the CEO of Hays, plc since Sept. 2007. An aeronautical engineer by training (University of Salford, UK, 1982), Alistair commenced his career at British Aerospace in the military aircraft division. From 1983-1988, he worked Schlumberger filling a number of field and research roles in the Oil & Gas Industry in both Europe and North America. He completed his MBA (Stanford University, California) in 1991 and returned to the UK as a consultant for McKinsey & Co. His experience at McKinsey & Co covered a number of sectors including energy, consumer goods and manufacturing.
He moved to Blue Circle Industries in 1994 as Group Strategy Director, responsible for all aspects of strategic planning and international investments for the group. During this time, Blue Circle re-focused its business on heavy building material in a number of new markets and in 1998, Alistair assumed the role of Regional Director responsible for Blue Circle’s operations in Asia, based in Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. He was responsible for businesses in Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, Indonesia and Vietnam. Subsequent to the acquisition of Blue Circle by Lafarge in 2001, he also assumed responsibility for Lafarge’s operations in the region as Regional President for Asia.
In 2002, Alistair returned to the UK as CEO of Xansa, a UK-based IT services and back-office processing organisation. During his 5 year tenure at Xansa, he re-focused the organisation to create a UK-leading provider of back-office services across both the Public and Private sector and built one of the strongest offshore operations in the sector with over 6,000 people based in India.