Curiosity is a good thing, right? Especially for leaders. At least that’s what the research indicates. Although it appears that this is not absolute. There is a helpful version of curiosity, and another with a darker side.
I wrote about the helpful version of curiosity in my book Xtraordinary: The Art and Science of Remarkable Leadership. Genuine curiosity and thoughtful enquiry have many benefits, including promoting better relationships, encouraging more open communication, building trust, and leads to better problem solving and innovation efforts. It can also be used to teach and coach others, and empower their efforts.
In his Harvard Business Review article ‘Why curious people are destined for the C-Suite’, author Warren Berger showed how curiosity is behind many of the better-known leadership successes of market leaders and disruptors such as Disney, Netflix, Google, and Airbnb.
Indeed, Edgar Schein, the highly regarded MIT professor and author of Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling, argues that curiosity is perhaps the most important leadership capability in this modern age.
There is however a darker version of curiosity. One that can actually inhibit learning and constrain deeper growth.
Known as deprivation curiosity, it stems from a desire to reduce unpleasant feelings and sensations associated with uncertainty. It is distinguishable from the more helpful interest curiosity, which instead produces pleasant feelings and delight which come from learning and exploring.
Deprivation curiosity is the subject of a series of new research studies from a team of behavioural scientists at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Their study of more than 2000 people found that those who were higher in deprivation curiosity scored lower in intellectual humility. So, whilst they self-reported spending hours seeking the answer to a single problem, when their most important beliefs were contradicted by the new information they gathered, they were more likely to act defensively in response.
These research findings have led me to wonder about the curiosity I exhibit. I recognise that in times of stress and uncertainty, my curiosity can be driven by a desire to find answers that soothe my anxiety or worry. I also recognise that there can be times when I struggle and resist when someone then presents a version of the truth that doesn’t provide a balm to my stress, but instead challenges my assumptions and creates even more disequilibrium.
At my best, however, I remain open to new perspectives and versions of the truth that I may encounter in the process of exploring and inquiring. This more helpful interest curiosity is something I’d like to cultivate even more of; because inevitably I find that it leads to real learning, growth, and expansion, rather than a contraction in self. It also is much more helpful to my work with my clients.
How about you? Which version of curiosity shows up in your leadership and in your life?
Gerard Penna is a teacher, advisor, and coach to leaders at all stages of their journey, from CEOs and boards to supervisors and leaders just starting out. He works in diverse settings from desert mining camps to hi-tech start-ups and sky-scraping boardrooms. He is the author of Xtraordinary: The Art and Science of Remarkable Leadership, host of the Xtraordinary Leaders Podcast, and founder of Xtraordinary Leaders; a training company deeply committed to lifting the bar on leadership and leadership development.