Powerful leaders are curious; five proven ways to make curiosity work for you.

Have you ever noticed how frequently the best leaders ask questions? They know that being curious makes you a better leader. The reason? Curiosity goes hand-in-hand with openness, one of the essential qualities of an effective leader. 

Leaders with an open mind know they don’t have all the answers. They are willing to appreciate that their answers may not be the best ones. As a result, they are far more likely to foster a culture of openness and dialogue within their teams and organizations—inviting and encouraging others to contribute their ideas and perspectives. The process inspires and empowers their people, leading to growth, development, and better performance by all.

If you are curious about how to make curiosity work for you, here are five concrete methods. 

Set a daily ‘curiosity’ intention. 

Be intentional about being curious and choose one or more ways of trying it out each day. For example, one of the leaders I coach has developed his curiosity by challenging himself to listen deeply to everyone in meetings before he speaks. Realizing he was not hearing his team because he was often dominating conversations, he wanted to build their confidence in speaking up and contributing. 

By choosing to enter each meeting with curiosity, he strengthened his leadership. Now, team members are increasingly stepping up, sharing ideas, and engaging in robust conversations. Teamwork is stronger, and so are the leader’s relationships with individual team members, all from being intentional about being curious. 

‘Curiosity is sensing the limits of your current knowledge and being willing to explore what you don’t know’ – Michael Bungay Stanier

Check your assumptions.

Have you ever found yourself thinking something is true, only to find out later that you were completely wrong? Being a more curious leader helps you get better at noticing when you might be making assumptions or jumping to conclusions without considering all the facts. 

If you know you default to assumptions, get into the habit of separating what you know from what you think you know. A great way to do it is by being curious about yourself and asking a few questions: 

  • What do you know to be true about a situation; what makes you so sure? 
  • What might you be missing, overlooking, or assuming?
  • How might you be wrong?

When you make it a practice to check your assumptions, you give your curiosity muscles a good workout. Even better, you will learn to appreciate when you fall into the very human habit of assuming things rather than focusing on what is true. 

Ask more questions.

One of the best ways to be more curious is to challenge yourself to ask more questions and listen fully to each answer. If your question is a good one (think open-ended at a minimum), you will naturally be conveying a desire to hear what others have to say. 

For example, the leaders who practice their ‘asking’ skills in my leadership communication workshops have found that the right question can be a powerful opener. These kinds of questions invite team members to jump into the conversation with their questions, ideas and unique points of view. 

While there are many ways to formulate a question, you’ll want to focus on the ‘what’ or ‘how’ questions that hold more power than the yes/no questions. 

Case in point: if you wanted to have a good conversation with a team member about a project they just completed, you might begin by asking: ‘What was your experience in leading the project?’  An open-ended ‘what’ question will always invite more than a close-ended question like this: ‘Did you have a good experience leading the project?’ 

Be curious about your own perspective.

Perspectives – your mental frame of reference or ‘a particular way of seeing something’—are an important consideration when it comes to being a curious leader.  

The more you know about your own perspectives, the better. For example: Are you more likely to be open or closed in your thinking about a conversation, a relationship, or a situation? 

  • ‘Open’ might look like consistently inviting others to contribute their ideas. 
  • By comparison, ‘closed’ might consist of small, subtle cues that signal you are anxious to end a conversation and move on; for example, when you keep checking your watch, looking at incoming messages on your phone, or closing your notebook.

Now, ask yourself: How might your perspective in that situation be serving you or getting in the way? What might a slight shift in your perspective do for you? If, for example, you were just a little more curious? From that place of curiosity, what impact would you have on the conversation?

Ask for feedback.

Not sure you are being curious enough? Or perhaps you are wondering how you can use curiosity to strengthen your openness? 

One of the best ways to learn more about your leadership behaviours and how they affect others is to ask those around you for feedback. Whether you ask a trusted colleague for informal feedback or dive into a formal 360-leadership assessment to gather confidential input from your direct reports, your peers, and your boss—there are lots of ways to get a read. There are many different 360-assessments to choose from; my favourite is the Leadership Circle Profile.

Whatever method you choose to gather feedback, be curious about what you learn, especially around what is working and what still needs work. Then use your curiosity to refine your approach. The more you know about this quality in yourself, the more you can do to be curious and use curiosity to deepen your leadership effectiveness.

Is your curiosity piqued? I hope so. Because being curious makes you a better leader. By making these five practices part of your leadership toolkit, you will be boosting your curiosity and your effectiveness as a leader.

Michelle Lane

Michelle Lane is a leadership development coach, consultant, and facilitator with 40 years of diverse leadership experience in the public, private and non-profit sectors. Michelle can be reached at mlane@vibrantleaders.ca.

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