Curiosity and the Effective Leader

Curiosity and the Effective Leader

by elainesuess

Some of you may remember the phrase from the National Enquirer – “enquiring minds want to know.”  However, most of you likely have not heard of positive change approach Appreciative Inquiry (AI). It starts with curiosity, as did the Enquirer, but then dramatically diverges. Curiosity, in the case of AI, did not kill the cat, but instead, increased its knowledge and propelled it to heights.

The Challenge

Meeting with “Tom” over a period of months in a coaching engagement revealed difficulty with an employee seemed to be representative of Gallup’s actively disengaged research numbers on employees — not willing to give an extra minute to work, not interested in the work, and not a “team player.”  In discussing the power of inquiry, “Tom” courageously decided to try the Appreciative approach with what he considered to be this difficult employee.

The Genius of Curiosity and Inquiry 

As part of the Appreciative approach, leaders are invited to focus more on inquiring rather than telling. AI as a whole is simple by design, however:

  • though simple, AI is robust in its power to uncover unique possibilities, inspire others and deliver positive and bold results.
  • though simple, AI encourages a more effective way to communicate –the language of inquiry:
    • open ended vs. closed
    • “what” and “how” vs. a sometimes judgmental “why’ (don’t throw out the “why,” but know when it works best)
    • intentional, thoughtful asking vs. habitual “I know best” telling
    • inquiring about others’ thoughts and ideas vs. advocating only for our own ideas
  • though simple, AI interrupts our automatic answer-providing responses to questions, and instead invites employees to connect to their own wisdom by answering their own questions.
  • though simple, AI takes courage and practice for leaders to embrace this different way of communicating, innovating and inspiring.

For leaders who embrace the Appreciative Inquiry approach and use it with employees and teams, it often becomes a way of being rather than just a rewarding pathway to effective leadership and organizational change.

The Meeting

In planning a “rework” (moving from telling to asking) of the meeting Tom would have with the employee, he considered the questions he wanted to ask his employee. The questions he planned on asking were unusual in that they sounds less like the norm — “Why aren’t you more committed?” and “Why aren’t you contributing more?”, and more like “How are you doing?”, “What do you like best about working here, and your work?” and “What strengths are you using most often in your work?”

Why is AI Powerful?

This article in Forbes does a nice job of elucidating why the inquiring that comes with curiosity helps  engage employees more fully,  invites employees to think for themselves and teases out what can often be  meaningful and innovative ideas for the organization.

The article includes the following thoughts that further demonstrate the power of AI:

  • I was tempted to respond to his questions, but held myself back. (Leaders listening vs. telling + letting employees think for themselves, prompted by a question vs. a response)
  • What the employee didn’t realize is that our answers are shaped by our questions. (The words we use and questions we ask create our reality)
  • When our questions are implicit…we are much more likely to act on habit than conscious intent. (Open questions invite more intentional and effective responses and actions)
  • And, if like the employee, our questions focus on shortcomings, can we truly expect great things to be forthcoming? (Asking what’s possible instead of what’s wrong, is both more inspiring and inviting of innovation)
  • “If we are not concentrating on our strengths and asking questions about opportunities, are we likely to reach breakthroughs?” David Cooperrider, co-creator of Appreciative Inquiry  (How do we amplify what we do well, in order to be bold and do more?)
  • The focus away from routine and away from weaknesses leads to fresh questions and answers about assets and strengths. (How can we activate the best in each employee for employee, organizational and world benefit?)

The Outcome

After Tom met with the employee, I asked about the result. Based on his intention and skill, I expected to hear that it went well. His description of the encounter however, was wonderfully surprising. He described the encounter as “lovely.” A word not often heard to describe potentially conflict-filled business meetings.

 Tom said that in the meeting,

  1. he was very intentionally present, and listened carefully so that he could respond in the moment vs. with planned responses that might not address unfolding opportunities or needs.
  2. he learned more about the employee, including important information, that he did not already know.
  3. the employee shared new information because of a new insight into Tom’s authentic interest
  4. expectations for work commitments were set, with both parties thankful for new understanding

The goal for the meeting was not to increase the employee’s work hours, but to engage the employee in a way that would allow a greater connection with the team and a greater level of effectiveness and productivity.  

Curiosity, a willingness to try a new approach, and an open heart won the day in this case. 

An appreciative approach takes intention and practice, but the payoff can be amazing!



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