Hooray For Curious Minds!
If you’re anything like me, you were glued to the Michael Cohen congressional hearing on Wednesday. It was fascinating and salacious. It was both the most interesting and worst of today’s politics. One thing really stood out to me and it was that there were stories and situations that Mr. Cohen offered to the committee that absolutely begged for follow up questions but those questions were never asked by most of the congressional representatives.
This lack of curiosity is fascinating to me and it absolutely made me recollect a few experiences I have had surfacing or escalating questionable or outright diabolical people, behavior, and/or practices to various corporate bodies and it has – essentially – fallen on deaf, disinterested ears. I have a relatively high tolerance for corporate nonsense but recognizing that there were very obvious questions that were ripe for the picking and just not asked – my interest was piqued around why people choose to be deliberately obtuse.
How could someone raise an issue and the human on the receiving end of the message not care enough to respond or find out more? Are they part of the problem? Are they a bit meshugga? Are they that profoundly lazy? Are they terrible at their job? Are they willfully ignorant? I suspect they are all of these things, most of the time. But I had to find out more.
Cognitive dissonance is the psychological concept of the feeling of tension or anxiety that happens when someone holds two conflicting beliefs, ideas, or nuggets of information at the same time. It occurs when someone performs an action that contradicts personal beliefs and also when someone is confronted with new information that contradicts their already existing beliefs and values. When there is an inconsistency between your belief and your behavior, this inconsistency is known as dissonance, whereas the concept of conflicting beliefs and actions is known as cognitive dissonance. Something must change in order to eliminate this dissonance because cognitive dissonance involves personal internal conflict. It’s one of the primary reasons that people can’t handle the truth.
The Truth Is Like A Big, Warm Hug From Your Best Friend
No…wait, that’s not the saying – the actual cliché goes – “the truth hurts“. Our brains hate receiving information that threatens our self-esteem, shatters our preexisting notions, makes our professional or personal life more difficult/complicated, or threatens our character. Admitting that we’re wrong about something, or even partially to blame definitely isn’t easy. When the truth slaps us in the face, we want to protect ourselves from the mental agita and so we find a way to shut down, ignore, repel the information, or otherwise resist digesting what doesn’t align with our happy place of nescience.
The Future Belongs To The Curious
When I think of some of the most curious minds – people like Stephen Hawking, Isaac Newton, Leonardo da Vinci, Albert Einstein, George Carlin all come to mind for me. It’s because of their curiosity and action that we have knowledge of certain things that most people took, and continue to take, for granted. These people were deeply passionate and curious and continue to inspire a lot of people to be curious and creative every day.
My experience with most people I meet and interact with on a very surface level is that they possess a frightening lack of curiosity. Most people are simply moving through time, going through their daily routine, and keeping busy with pedestrian, uninspired, and predictable “stuff”.
Far too many of professional environments I visit with and the majority of “executives” I speak with have the desire to extract curiosity from their people. They want obedient workers – people who are just smart enough to execute arbitrary directives or do the paperwork. And just dull and compliant enough to passively accept it. We tell people what to learn, when and how to learn it, and rarely provide real moments for them to offer suggestions or question how these assignments fit in with the business strategy.
Curiosity is a basic element of our cognition but one that is widely ignored when it comes to assessing leadership acumen and effectiveness. We talk, ad infinitum, about a leader’s ability to build and direct high-performing teams and organizations by displaying skills, such as good judgment, integrity, alignment of vision and values, confidence, charisma, and political savvy. All of these are great and necessary for competent leadership. Yet the fundamental ingredient of leadership that has been neglected is a leader’s intellectual curiosity to truly understand the business, the people they are supporting, and the clients they serve and how to make everyone’s experience…better.
Benefits Of Curious People
A common contemporary view of curiosity is that it’s a special form of information-seeking distinguished by the fact that it is intrinsically motivated. These information seekers are driven to gather context and fact and seek out better, more effective ways of doing things. It should be every organization’s primary goal to find people who are intrinsically compelled to deliver excellence and reward and recognize them, frequently.
Information allows for better choices, collection of different perspectives, more sophisticated comparisons, and better identification of relevant elements for decision making. Acquiring information is the primary evolutionary purpose of all our sense organs. Complex [and awesome] people actively control their senses to maximize intake of information.
- Curious leaders are open to new experiences, which enables them to approach people and challenges in a less impaired and cautious way. In fact, one of the top things that companies can do to promote true diversity and inclusion is to hire leaders with high curiosity scores. They are not just more willing to understand and connect with people who are different from them but they also create and value more diverse teams and inclusive cultures. Conversely, when leaders lack curiosity they will hire to their own image, creating homogenized, safe teams where differences are stigmatized and ridiculed.
- They are more tolerant of ambiguity. This helps them manage the nuances and complexities to cope with the uncertainty we deal with in today’s world. Most of our everyday decisions are carried out under sub-optimal conditions. Real-world challenges tend to be blurry and ill-defined, and lack a simple solution. Regardless of the situation, a curious leader will be more likely to consider a wider range of options and pay attention to data and facts before deciding. They will also be more willing to accept their mistakes – as opposed to assigning blame or making excuses if things go wrong. However, leaders that lack curiosity require a significant need for closure, which can result in a tendency to make categorical and over-simplified interpretations of a reality that benefits them, propelled by their discomfort with uncertainty. In fact, incurious leaders are more interested in maintaining a positive self-image than in actually understanding truth. Their desire to shut down any version of truth that doesn’t jive their preconceptions or assumptions is a strategy they frequently employ to validate their own beliefs.
- Curiosity brings excitement and enthusiasm into an ordinary day. The life of curious people is far from boring. It’s neither bland nor routine. There are always new things that attract their attention and stimulate their senses, there are always new “toys” to play with and new ideas to learn. Instead of being bored, curious people have an adventurous life and spirit. One of the benefits that they share with their colleagues is they are able to nurture this excitement of learning in others through conversation, support, and time for curiosity. The incurious are clock-watchers and people that speak in terms of “hopefully”. The curious mind knows that hope is not a strategy and they will deliver thoughtful, innovative results and solutions.
Tell-Tales Signs Of A Curious Mind
- They Listen Without Judgement
- They Ask A Lot Of Questions
- They Seek Out Moments Of Surprise & Delight
- They Are Present
- They Admit When They’re Wrong
- They Aren’t Afraid To Say “I Don’t Know”
- They Don’t Dwell On The Past