February 21, 2020

The Power of Curiosity

Sam Gerken
February 21, 2020

The Power of Curiosity

Sam Gerken

At Spreetail, we welcome each new hire to the team by teaching them about our culture and how to navigate it. During their first week we discuss our mantra, how it shows up, and how to implement it in the workplace.

My personal favorite part of the mantra is “Practice Humility.” It’s my favorite because it creates a culture of curiosity. Practice Humility means asking questions and encouraging an open dialogue. When we’re aware that we all have something to learn, we’re helpful and humble with our feedback. It also means recognizing that feedback is essential to growth. At Spreetail, we reward curiosity and feedback because it leads to more productive behavior, better results, and improved communication.  

Sounds simple. So, why is it so challenging to ask more questions?

A recent study by Merck KGaA surveyed workers in 16 industries. They found that while 65% believed curiosity was essential to discover new ideas, almost the same percentage felt unable to ask questions on the job.

What are the barriers that prevent us from feeling able to ask questions?

  1. The fear of looking silly.

In a world where most answers are at our fingertips, there’s an increasing pressure we put on ourselves to know it all. The problem: we don’t (and can’t possibly) know everything. In effort to demonstrate our value, we often find ourselves in a hurry to provide answers rather than ask questions.  

  1. To avoid conflict.

Sometimes asking questions feels a lot like challenging someone else’s work or thoughts. That can be uncomfortable and make us feel uneasy about asking questions. However, it’s important that we approach the situation with genuine curiosity and intent to learn. We must avoid assuming we know the answer or that we have a better solution. 

  1. Rejection fatigue.

Exploration of new ideas often involves questioning the status quo and doesn’t always produce immediate results. It also means not settling for the first possible solution — so it yields better remedies. When our thoughts or curiosity isn’t instantaneously fruitful, that doesn’t mean we should stop trying.

  1. Group-think.

No one else has questions, so we assume our questions aren’t valid or echoed. We must be careful to avoid slipping into robotic group-think where no one is willing to risk asking questions for fear of rocking the boat. If no one else is asking questions, we should step up as leaders and raise our hands.

How do we overcome barriers to asking questions?

For some people, questioning comes easily. Their natural inquisitiveness puts the ideal question on the tip of their tongue. But in my opinion, most of us don’t ask enough questions, nor do we pose our inquiries in an optimal way. Luckily, asking questions is a skill that we can hone through practice.

  1. Just speak up.

If we remain silent to avoid conflict, we won’t get anywhere, certainly not to the bottom of understanding the issue and how to remedy it.

  1. Seek to understand.

Questions should always be asked in a way that shows respect and comes from genuine curiosity. Don’t use questions to challenge someone or to undermine them. When asking a question, reflect on if it stems from legitimate interest or if there’s an ulterior motive.  

  1. Assume positive intent.

It’s easy to get caught up with intentions and lose sight of the issue at hand. If we make assumptions about other’s actions, it becomes easy to come off combative with our questions. The only real goal of accusatory questions is putting someone in a bad light so you can show your hierarchal flex or “own” a situation. It’s useless.

  1. Keep questions open-ended.

Research in survey design has shown the dangers of narrowing respondents’ options. No one likes to feel interrogated — and “closed” questions can force answerers into a this-or-that corner. Open-ended questions can counteract that effect and can be particularly useful in uncovering information or learning something new.

  1. Ask purposeful questions.

We should seek to ask questions that will help us solve a problem and improve at our jobs, not to show our colleagues we were listening in the meeting.

  1. Don’t give up.

In the case of a rejected proposal, it can be a useful exercise to step back and ask more questions to understand current company priorities. Getting to the bottom of it can make it easier to return to the situation with an updated plan that’s far likelier to get approved.

What’s at risk if we don’t tap into our curiosity?

If we fail to ask the tough questions — at best, we lack innovation, no change occurs, and we continue the path. At worst, we experience unforeseen pitfalls because no one raised the question. Asking questions typically allows us to adapt to uncertain market conditions and external pressures.  

If we fail to ask the tough questions, we typically end up falling prey to confirmation bias (looking for information that supports our beliefs rather than for evidence suggesting we are wrong). This leads to invalid assumptions and poor communication.

What’s next?

It takes courage to ask questions. Asking questions requires us to be vulnerable and transparent with our thoughts. However, if we want a different outcome, if we want to feel more positive about our business, or if we want to thrive as we move forward together, we must choose to think differently and act on those choices.  

Sam Gerken

People & Culture Generalist

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