Cultivate Curiosity with Coaching Cultures




We need to set the record straight: curiosity does not kill cats, but lack of curiosity might. And a lack of curiosity might endanger you and your organization, too.

Out in the wild, the cats that survive are the ones that remain curious about their habitats and learn quickly enough to adapt when something new shows up that causes a threat. The same is true in corporate environments. Whether it’s a new predator—or competitor—that suddenly appears, those who are curious enough to notice the change, and use their curiosity to figure out how best to address the situation, are those who are most likely to survive—and thrive—in our everchanging world.

According to the “The Business Case for Curiosity” in the Harvard Business Review, employees who are curious are more likely to innovate in both creative and noncreative jobs. No matter the industry, studies show that encouraging curiosity leads to people finding alternative solutions to daily job concerns. Isn’t that exactly what leaders want their people to do?

Imagine what would be possible if curiosity was a way of life in your organization. That might be hard to envision because so much has been done to actively suppress curiosity for so long. Whether it’s the rote-based—you must be perfect—education that many of us grew up with, or the widely shared assumption that leadership is telling people what to do and correcting them when they are “wrong”—curiosity has long been viewed as more of a problem to be suppressed than a positive attribute to be developed.

It’s time to get curious about how to cultivate curiosity, in individuals and throughout our organizations in real, practical ways so that curiosity becomes a habit. That’s what coaching cultures do—they wire up a leadership style that encourages people to integrate some of the fundamental elements of that support curiosity into their day-to-day interactions. It’s called coaching-based leadership.

Traditional Approaches to Leadership Threaten Curiosity

Our traditional, “Do what I say and I’ll correct you if I think you’re wrong” approach to leadership rewards leaders for “fixing problems.” This leads leaders to ask questions like, “What’s wrong with this situation—or person? How do I fix this? And, how do I make sure this problem never happens again?”

Not surprisingly, people don’t want to be the problem that needs fixing, so they stick to what they know, wait to be told what to do and defend against anything that might put them at risk, such as offering a fresh perspective on an old issue, or trying a new approach that might not work perfectly the first time. This traditional approach to leadership kills curiosity.

When curiosity dies out, so does an organization’s ability to keep its most curious people (who are often their newest workers), resolve old issues in new ways and engage people in forward-thinking conversations.  A study from the University of California, Davis, discovered that curiosity stimulates long-term memory—meaning those who are more curious about a subject are more likely to recall and retain processed information. These changes in the brain prepare people to learn. When learning becomes a way of life, organizations are more adept at responding to threats and opportunities. In fact, curiosity may be the very thing that turns a threat or challenge into an opportunity.

A Curious Way to Look at the World

People tend to see what they are looking for. While traditional approaches to leadership encourage leaders to look for problems, leaders who embrace a coaching approach to leadership look for possibilities.

When leaders take a coaching approach to “in the moment” conversations, they are guided by questions such as, “What’s possible here? What might this person not be aware of that’s keeping them from moving forward? And, how can I support this person to learn from this challenge?”

Curiosity comes out to play when it’s encouraged by these kinds of questions because coaching-based leaders use them in their everyday conversations to:

Encourage people to get curious about how other people see the world. This is a really important kind of curiosity (social curiosity, see side bar). When people observe others doing things they don’t appreciate, understand or agree with, they tend to shift into judgment and blaming—that shuts down curiosity. Coaching cultures stress getting curious about how other people view, and respond to, situations. This enables people to remain open so they can engage in productive, coaching-based conversations “in the moment” without a heavy overlay of judgment getting in the way.

Help people get unstuck by igniting insight. It’s the insight of learning something new that motivates change. Coaching-based leaders are adept at integrating coaching approaches into everyday conversations to help people view their situations from different perspectives, find new ways to address challenges and build the confidence needed to take action. The entire focus of coaching conversations is exploring what’s possible and translating the insights that emerge into practical actions.

Inspire people to learn from day-to-day situations. People get stressed when they think they have to be “perfect” or be punished in some way if they’re not. A coaching approach to leadership drains the stress out of situations by practicing iterative learning. In this practice, people try a new approach to something, notice what worked and what didn’t, then use coaching to discover ways to improve upon their efforts. It’s the learning that’s supported—and rewarded—when a coaching approach to leadership is used, rather than the high stakes, high stress game of only rewarding perfect performance.

Cultivating a coaching culture is a practical way to instill the habit of curiosity in your organization. Doing so may be the very thing that gives you and your organization the competitive edge needed to be the top cat in your field.

Are you curious about coaching cultures? If you are, you may want to check out Dianna Anderson’s new column on Wiring up Coaching Cultures that will appear in early November.

The Harvard Business Review article “The Business Case for Curiosity” breaks curiosity into five dimensions: deprivation sensitivity, joyous exploration, social curiosity, stress tolerance and thrill seeking. This breaks down curiosity not by level of curiosity, but by areas of curiosity—meaning people can and do showcase curiosity in different ways. Coaching-based leadership  appears to support the two dimensions that are the most important—stress tolerance and social curiosity.

Image courtesy:  ©Remains / iStock

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