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While there are many characteristics of good leaders, curiosity is an essential trait. At its core, curiosity communicates your general interest to know or learn something, and it has served influential leaders well over the centuries. Consider Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Marie Curie, and Martin Luther King Jr. and their inquisitive natures. They asked questions, challenged traditional thinking, and took action that fueled progress. When we think of the potential impact and outcomes of curiosity, we begin to see its power and how it can serve us as leaders.

The Importance of Curiosity

Curiosity has many benefits. It brings opportunity for personal growth, enhances organizational learning, and helps create connections that may empower and engage team members. Curious leaders and organizations that encourage questions are more likely to avoid the status quo by welcoming inquiries from all team members and using these as an opportunity to fuel creativity and growth. As a leader, you can foster that inquisitive environment by using some of the tactics in this article.

Asking vs. Telling

Have you ever worked for someone who simply tells you what to do without any concern for your ideas? It doesn’t feel particularly good. When a leader only tells, it eliminates the opportunity for others to have input and may potentially minimize buy-in. People want to be given the opportunity to be heard and share their ideas, which promotes engagement. When the team is on board, a leader may be more likely to get the desired outcome by creating higher levels of ownership and accountability.

There is also neuroscience behind asking questions vs. telling. When we tell people what to do, we access their short-term memory in their cognitive brain, where learning is least effective. By asking questions, we access the middle brain, which houses our long-term memory and serves as our center for creative thinking.

Using Reflective Inquiry

In the book Coach the Person, Not the Problem, author Marcia Reynolds defines the concept of reflective inquiry as allowing a person to reflect on a situation in a deeper way, potentially seeing things in a different light and developing new perspectives. Great leaders are experts in reflective inquiry, asking questions that are relevant, timely, and challenge the recipient to see beyond current perspectives or awareness. Leaning into curiosity in this manner allows a leader to uncover assumptions or limiting beliefs in others that may be barriers to success, while proactively exploring ways to minimize or remove those barriers. Consider the following examples of telling statements that can be turned into reflective questions to promote engagement and success within a team.

Asking Empowering Questions

There is no all-inclusive list of questions that leaders should ask. However, there are tips and tricks to asking high-quality, empowering inquiries. A general characteristic of those questions is that they are open-ended, inviting reflection, exploration, and action. Close-ended questions that only require a “yes” or “no” should therefore be reframed into more curious queries that stimulate thought and deeper levels of communication. Questions that begin with “what” and “how” are more open-ended and require more than a one-word response. Below are some examples of empowering questions.

  • What makes that important to you?
  • What is the benefit if we do (x)?
  • What does “good” look like for our team?
  • How will we approach this problem?
  • How can you look at that situation differently?
  • How will we be accountable as a team?

Suspending Judgment

One thing leaders should remember when asking curious, empowering questions is to suspend judgment. “Why” questions may be perceived as judgmental and having a negative connotation. Take for example, the question, “Why did you do that?” versus “What was the reason behind your decision?” Each can be received in quite different ways, with the why question seeming to judge and the what question attempting to understand. It’s a nuance, but a particularly important one.

There are also several powerful phrases that can be used prior to asking questions to further soften inquires. Two favorites are, “I’m curious, what made you…?” and “Help me understand, how did you decide…?” Both these phrases relay a seek-to-understand perspective that can be disarming, removing potential defensiveness, and increasing successful outcomes.

There is an elegant simplicity in asking good questions. When done the right way, with genuine curiosity and a desire to create reflective, engaging opportunities, amazing things can happen. Try it and see what happens!

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