In this episode, Bridgette and Irvine will explore curiosity a superpower we all had as children but many lose as we grow older. Tune in to hear how curiosity can make you a better leader and assess if you are asking curious questions.
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Irvine: Hello everyone and welcome to the Resilient Leadership Podcast, hosted by myself and Bridgette. Bridgette, how are you?
Bridgette: I am doing great Irvine. It’s so good to be here with you and I’m just very excited about this topic. I really am.
Irvine: Me too. Yeah, absolutely. So the aim of our podcast of course, is to help you lead with a greater sense of calm and clarity and conviction, even in anxious times, which of course we certainly are still in. And I just invite you to stick around to the end of the podcast today because we try and end with a wonderful practice that you could implement right away and we have a wonderful practice around curiosity, which is the topic of today’s podcast. So Bridgette, I don’t know about you, but I’m hearing in all different types of places that curiosity is a thing now and the importance of curiosity, is it the same for you?
Bridgette Oh, indeed. There’s just so much writing and research going on about curiosity and as coaches, we are trained to be curious, but it seems like more and more people are interested in finding out about how this thing works. And one of the things that has really struck me was this study that was cited in HBR article, I think it was. Yeah, HBR where it said that employees surveyed 92% agreed with the statement, that curiosity is an essential skill for bottom line organizational results. It is tied to innovation. But when they ask those same employees, like how often are you curious or are you curious regularly on the job? Only 24% said, yes.
Bridgette: So something happens in terms of this muscle that it kind of atrophies, and we’re going get into a little bit about why that is, but maybe the best way into that is to talk about the neuroscience behind it.
Irvine: Yeah, absolutely. So the neuroscience is really fascinating because of course with research and we’re beginning to understand parts of the brain, that different activities light up and the same is with curiosity. So what’s interesting, there’s two parts of the brain that are at play when it comes to curiosity. The first is what we know it’s the oldest cognitive pathway. Which is really not surprising because when you think about it, throughout evolution, we had to defend ourselves, we had to survive so you kind of needed a little curious mind and different ways of doing things, because if you did the same thing, it was not going to be good for your survival. So what we know is that curiosity, therefore. Activates a part in the brain of intrinsic motivation. Which is really interesting because it’s connected therefore, with dopamine and what dopamine is, dopamine is the reward pleasure neurotransmitter. So when dopamine’s excreted throughout our body, we feel pleasure, so that’s why actually curiosity feels good. And why actually, when we’re in that curious mindset, we want to trigger it even more because it gives us energy, it’s almost like it pulls us forward.
Bridgette: That’s so interesting. So it’s like inherently rewarding because a hit of dopamine comes every time we go, huh? Like I wonder about, right?
Irvine: Absolutely. Yeah. And the other thing that the other part of the brain is really interesting is that the hippocampus, which is involved in our memory. So whenever we are naturally curious, it also triggers the part of the brain where we remember. So that’s why curiosity is with learning. It’s a great cocktail. We feel motivated, and then also as we learn and discover new things, we remember them as well. So curiosity, therefore, is essential when it comes to memory and it comes to learning and that’s why it actually feels good as well. Now…
Bridgette: That is so interesting.
Irvine: Yeah. So Bridgette, we also know that when we introduce anxiety it impacts it in a way. So what have you found out about that, about how anxiety impacts this curiosity?
Bridgette: Yeah. Well, curiosity is an antidote to anxiety. That’s one of the reasons you and I wanted to talk about it because in this podcast, this is all about how do we manage through anxious times? And it turns out that right baked into our very DNA is this incredible, powerful, natural ability that lowers the stress response. So you can’t be highly anxious and highly curious at the same time. It just doesn’t work that way. As soon as you start to really embody a curious mindset, the amygdala starts to calm down that stress response. In fact, what they’re seeing now is that that feeling that comes from uncertainty, that anxious fear of uncertainty shrinks when we become curious. That’s enough for me to want to practice it more often.
Irvine: Yeah. I can so relate to that, because I don’t know about you whenever I kind of feel anxious at times, the last thing I want is to be curious, I just like tell me the answer. I need to find the solution type of thing. That narrowing is so evident.
Bridgette: Yeah. And one of the things we can do is actually be curious about our anxiety. Like when we’re feeling anxious…
Irvine: Love that. Yeah.
Bridgette: It’s to be like an [inaudible 05:31], but to kind of be like, huh, I can really feel myself getting anxious. I wonder what that’s about. And right away, there’s a shift, a little bit of a shift there for us to be that observer of the anxiety.
Irvine: Yeah. I love that. So then it’s striking me that curiosity there for something innate, we’ve had it to be embedded in the brain and the way it is. And yet just from that statistic from the Harvard Business Review, HBR that you’d mentioned, we don’t practice it, and I think we lose it. So, what is it? Why do you think we lose it? Because I’m sure kids are very curious, but somehow adults were not,
Bridgette: Oh my gosh, kids. When I had my kids, I remember being so struck by the wonder in awe that they approach the world with and I could tell I had lost some of that. And now I have two grandkids and I’m seeing it all over again. So like what happens? I was thinking about this. I was thinking two, maybe three main culprits. One is busyness. We’re so busy and we’re about efficiency in getting things done, and competence that as we become adults and we get into our careers and we develop expertise that competence somehow tamps down the curiosity. And maybe also one other thing is novelty, that as we grow up and we become adults and we put on our adult hat, things don’t seem novel anymore. We lose our interest in the world because been there, done there, you know, got that t-shirt kind of a thing. So I do think it’s a muscle that we literally have to take to the gym as adults. Children don’t. But we have to be intentional about strengthening this natural capability we possess. For sure.
Irvine: So it is kind of a use it or lose it.
Bridgette: Use it or lose it.
Irvine & Bridgette: Yeah. I like that.
Bridgette: So what about this notion of leadership and curiosity? I guess we should kind of connect it to leadership, right?
Irvine: Yeah. Well, we’ve mentioned in a few past episodes, this acronym called VUCA, which is its powerful because it gives us language, I think even before COVID, language of what we were experiencing. And that was, you know, the volatility, the uncertainty, the complexity, the ambiguity of not just work life, but life in general and managing change and managing disruption and growing complexity. And just from what we’ve said before, these are anxiety, inducing activities and so therefore it doesn’t lend itself naturally to curiosity. And yet, even in the midst of COVID, I think the power of curiosity and innovation you can see that because I remember reading, there was a few articles that came out maybe about six months into the pandemic where by automakers, two here in the US General Motors and Ford, two in Germany, BMW and Volkswagen had turned their assembly lines to reconfigure them, to produce protective gear and then also parts for ventilators.
And, you know, as you think about that, it’s like, that just didn’t happen. There had to be a curious conversation about the natural thing for we’ll just shut it down. That’s life, there’s nothing we can do, be can’t get parts ba boom, but yet the curiosity pushed forward and it was no let’s think about what’s possible, which is a beautiful, curious question.
Bridgette: Yeah. It kind of reminds me of that phrase necessity is the mother of invention because until there is a global pandemic, sometimes we’re just doing what we’ve always done and we’re not being curious and we’re being even resistant to the exploration of totally new ideas.
Irvine: Absolutely. So that’s the upside of, of the pandemic in the sense that there were a lot of people who seized the day and became intensely curious.
Bridgette: Yeah. Very interesting.
Irvine: Yeah. And there’s another survey as well done in Novartis, which is a real global healthcare company. And one of the things that they found, it was really interesting study about leadership and curiosity. And what they found is it impacted engagement. So the more curious a leader, the greater the engagement of the employees, and the less curious, or the more curiosity they shut down, the lower, the level of engagement.
Bridgette: Makes sense.
Irvine: Which is just fascinating because we’re going through, we previous episode was on the great resignation. So engagement is a huge issue and here we have another connector about curiosity. So we know therefore that creating a culture of curiosity is vital. So Bridgette, what’s your some ideas you have for how might we go about creating a culture of curiosity?
Irvine: Okay. Well, I always start with the leader and the leader’s willingness to embody whatever it is that they want other people to be doing. So if a leader embodies curiosity and brings a curious mindset, I think people notice that. We all know when we’ve been around a curious person, and it feels good to be around that curious leader. I think leaders have to give permission for their employees to really be curious, because that means they’re going experiment and that means they’re going make mistakes. And so I would say, I wonder what our culture is like around handling mistakes. And if the answer to that is not a particularly positive one, you could tell people to be curious, but they are not going take the risk. So there’s some of that.
I think leaders have to be willing to admit they don’t have all the answers To actually be able to say, like, I don’t know to a question or in the face of a challenge that maybe they feel a lot of pressure to have the answers. But to say, I really don’t know, but I’m willing to learn. Can we discover this together kind of a thing I think that again, when the higher we get in an organization, the more we’re in a bubble and the more we’re in a bubble, the more we might just be about the business of getting things done the way we’ve always gotten them done. And our busyness, our competent see may impact are showing up as curious leaders, and in particular you mentioned engagement, so this is what it made me think of. If I’m not curious about the people that I’m leading, they pick up on that.
If I just want you to get things done, and just go do your work and it’s, yeah, it’s nice that you have a life, but I don’t really want to know about it. I think that is a message that comes across loud and clear, so being curious about the human beings in our midst, oh man, that’s so incredibly important. So then that really is about asking cur questions, and we’re both coaches, I know you’ve been trained and asking curious questions again, is part of our craft, but how would you share with people the importance of questions and asking curious questions? Because people listening are not coaches. They don’t go to training like we do where we literally have to sit across from somebody and not tell them anything. We just have to ask questions from a place of curiosity. Do you remember those days when we got trained at?
Irvine: I know. Yes. And it’s interesting because you’ve just evoked a memory went to coaching school, and for some people it was a real struggle. It was a real struggle to ask really curious and open questions because so often in our mind, we are geared towards solution and doing, and the quickest way to find the solution. And questions are really at a life force in our lives. Everything we do is generated by questions. It opens our minds, it helps us to connect to each other. I love that example you brought up about when a leader is asking a question of someone and it’s really not coming from a space of genuineness, it’s kind of proforma, it just feels so unnatural. And so therefore we actually know where the question’s coming from, or we feel where the connection’s coming from because it has the power to connect us.
And questions are connected to innovation, so we know that innovation comes from that. So I think the spirit of curiosity is what drives some questions, and I think some questions are better than other questions. But I think at the core of it it really is our mindset. What are we bringing? Like in that leader’s example, are we really bringing true curiosity? Or is it, I’m asking this because I need to ask it.
Bridgette: Oh yeah. And again, we all know the difference. We know when somebody is asking a question in the spirit of true inquiry, versus it’s an inquisition. I remember one lawyer I coached and we were talking about the power of curiosity and asking questions and he goes, hey, I ask a lot of questions. He goes, people come in here, they sit down and I just start going for it. And if they don’t know the answer to those questions, then I know they weren’t prepared. And I remember sharing with him the distinction between an inquisition and an inquiry. Oh yeah. He kind of laughed as well. He, he could see that, yeah, sometimes that’s exactly what he was doing and hey, that’s okay too, but it isn’t true curiosity.
Irvine: I think it’s really important for us to understand that the questions we ask, actually how we approach things, our actually mindset as well, influences those questions. I’m sure you’ve read Carol Dweck’s book on mindset and I love the image she used. She said there are two mindsets that we can approach reality with. One is an open, another is a fixed. And I think really this is important for us to a kind of a little self-awareness in the moment, what are we approaching it? Because sometimes a fixed mindset is all about protection. And we’ve talked about this, how can I protect myself? How can I protect the situation? How uppermost is fear of failure. And that generates a certain type of question. Whereas if our mind is more growth, then we see what’s before is full of opportunity, we are optimistic, we encourage even challenges and, and feedback.
So, I was thinking about this, a question that might come out of a fixed mindset could be like, who’s to blame? Pointing it’s the defensiveness, whereas like an open mindset might look at this situation and say, well, what’s my responsibility/ What do I need to do? Or a fixed question could be like how can I be in control? So whenever we’re kind of anxious, et cetera, control becomes a huge issue. And yet…
Bridgette: Well, I was just thinking too, that question, how can I control is probably not one we would voice, but it’s in our head. So another thing to pay attention to is, are the questions in our own minds fixed or growth oriented questions.
Bridgette: I love that. How can I be in control? That’s about protection and that’s about anxiety.
Irvine: Whereas kind of an open one, well, what’s my options here. What options do I have? So I think that both the internal awareness of, how am I feeling in this situation? Am I feeling defensive? And then actually being curious about our questions. Kind of like, what questions did I ask there? Were they interesting questions? Were they good questions because Bridgette, not all questions are curious questions, as we’ve mentioned.
Bridgette: No, no, no. Leading questions are often what leaders resort to. Leading questions where they kind of have the idea in mind that they want to get their team to, so they ask a series of questions to guide the team, to the conclusion they want. And we’ve all done that. I’ve done that. Let’s face it, we all do that as human beings, but that’s not what we’re talking about here and terms of genuine curiosity and using the power of questions to elicit discovery, to elicit innovation and new thinking. And so you have to kind ask the question, not with an outcome or an answer in mind. This is what, when I went to coach training and I’ll never forget at what my coach at the time said to me, he recommended a particular coaching program. And I said, well, why do you think that one is best for me? And he goes, well, the reason I think it is is because you have been a consultant for many, many years and this coaching program will beat the consultant out of you. And I was like, oh, that sounds rough.
And he was like, and what I mean is it won’t allow you to immediately apply your toolkit of expertise, your recommendations, your ideas. You’re going to have to go to the basics of sitting with another human being and being deeply and genuine curious. And boy was he right. So, some of the questions that I think we could literally plant as like little seeds in our head, is like how might? How might we think about this differently?
Irvine: Love that.
Bridgette: How might. And another one might be, what if? I find that one sticks in my head a lot when I’m coaching. Before I ever suggest anything, I always say, well, what if because that invites a playful kind of consideration of an option, as opposed to saying, I think you should do this. It’s kind of like, well what if you tried this? And doesn’t that ring differently with somebody?
Irvine: Totally. I love that. That what if? It’s such an open question and I love this, the playfulness around it because I think curiosity and play are connected…
Bridgette: Oh my gosh.
Irvine: I think having both of them questions that evoke that playfulness is so important.
Bridgette: That’s what children are doing when they’re curious is all about play. That’s how they’re learning, you know? And then, how can? So, how might we do this? What if we tried this? And how can we be more effective when we decide to implement this? Though, if a leader has those kind of three little phrases at their disposal and any conversation, it can shift tenner and tone even of a really difficult a conversation where you’re giving somebody, let’s say constructive criticism, where you have to tell them a hard truth. I think that’s a place where we don’t often bring curiosity but we could.
Irvine: Yeah, absolutely.
Bridgette: We really, really could. So Irvine, I’m curious, why do you think, so at the top of this podcast, this episode, you know, you mentioned the fact that it’s not something that we all keep at full strength and I talked about it being a muscle that atrophies and why, but I’m curious, for you personally, did you notice as you became an adult waning of your curiosity and if you did, what would you attribute it to?
Irvine: It’s a great question. I think, yes, I think there was waning. I think part of it is just habit. I think we get into a habit of not I think looking for, as a leader myself, the pace of leadership made me want to get quick solutions.
Irvine: And then the other realization within me is that I don’t do anxiety well. When I’m very anxious, I kind of want to move beyond it and I realize that that shuts me down at times. It makes me less curious and even something as stupid Bridgette as time, when I’m looking at the watch, I’m not asking curious questions because this has got me fixed, and I think we live in in times where we’re so crushed for times. So I think part of that is, is all that has left into kind of bad habits, which then has the result in me being less curious. And I think I’ve had to consciously attempt to really build up that muscle with different exercises of curiosity and one of the things that works for me as well? Finding a space. I think if you kind have a space that for me, there’s a room in the house that is beautiful, full of light and I love going into it. And I’ve kind of made that my little curious space and there’s an energy there and I kind of feel, you know… so I often sometimes say the leaders, if you feel stuck, can you go into another room?
Irvine: And maybe you can be curious about something there in a way that you can’t be because you feel so stuck in this situation in that room.
Bridgette: Yeah. So I am going connect all this back to what I think is maybe the most powerful insight we have about curiosity from a neuroscience point of view. And that is that every minute and every moment that we spend being curious, we get a hit of dopamine and dopamine is that feel good chemical. So, if we want to feel good, if we want to feel better, really one of the most accessible ways to do that is to get into that curious mind, that place where we’re like, huh? I wonder. So Irvine, we have to leave our listeners with some kind of a way to practice that. Because I mean, we’re saying we forget to be curious, we’re too busy to be curious. So how can they practice this?
Irvine: Well one of the things I was thinking about a great practice is one of the areas that I remember reading about during the pandemic is that people have begun to take up different hobbies. And it got me thinking about being a beginner. And there’s a mindset we begin to be a beginner. There’s a mindset we bring there and different things, and I think this could be a wonderful way for people to think about. If they want to get into the mindset of being curious, just say, well, I’m a beginner here. What happens when you’re a beginner? And we know when you’re a beginner, you tend to ask questions a lot more when you’re a beginner, you know you’re going fail. If I’m going to take up dancing, I’m not going to be the perfect dancer, it’s going to take a while.
We require some patience with ourself, we know that you can’t compare yourself because as soon as you start comparing yourself, you’re going shut yourself down. So I think this idea of being a beginner and I would just invite everyone think about something, an activity you’ve taken up in the last couple of years where you have been a beginner and think about the mindset you brought to that. And just think of all the curiosity that was there, because I really think that can be helpful for getting into a curious mindset.
Bridgette: I love that. I’m even thinking you could bring a beginner’s mindset to your marriage, for example. Because I think we get married and we stay married hopefully for a long time and we forget to be a beginner in that relationship. We could bring a beginner’s mindset to a project that we have a lot of expertise with. We think we know exactly how to do it and exactly how to run it, what if we brought a beginner’s mindset? There’s a lot, lots of different ways to practice that. And I love the idea of being patient with ourselves when we do and being compassionate. As new learners, we can’t expect to be perfect. Awesome. So anything else you want to say to listeners about this superpower of curiosity before we close it out, Irvine?
Irvine: I would just say, curiosity, it’s so simple and so achievable and we ignore, we don’t think about it. So I just think, yeah, go for it and just notice, notice about being curious and just begin to practice it because it really has benefits for us. And if you want a hit a dopamine, if you want to feel good today and you’re not feeling good, just be curious.
Bridgette: Yeah. Get into that huh, I wonder like, mhmm. Awesome. Well, I feel more curious having this conversation with you and I’m feeling like maybe creating a space like you have in your house because I don’t have that where I can really go purposefully to think about being more open. Bringing that sense of wonder to my day so thank you for sharing that. And to our listeners, we are just delighted have been with us in this conversation. We hope that you got some tips and ideas about how to bring greater curiosity to your life, to your leadership, to your relationships. And next time we are going to talk about the secret sauce of resilient leaders. And what do we mean by that? The three key ingredients that helps leaders to manage disruptive change so we hope to see you then. Thank you as always for joining us, and we look forward to seeing you next time and Irvine, it was a pleasure being with you as always.
Irvine: Likewise, Bridgette thank you.
Bridgette: Take care.