Portrait of Dr. Alison Horstmeyer

Leadership and Curiosity: Critical Relationship in Times of Change

Q&A excerpts sourced from HR Partners where it was first published.

In a post pandemic world, leadership and what it entails are ever changing. Curiosity must be used to combat change in the workplace as evidence suggests that cultivating curiosity helps leaders adapt to such different challenges. This relationship is greatly emphasized in the interview by Jeannette Lang, General Manager for HR Partners, with our very own research fellow, Dr. Alison Horstmeyer. 

J: I have heard you talk about the VUCA world [volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous] and how it requires new thinking. What new skills do you think leaders need to navigate this new world we live in?

A: The persistent cadence of change associated with the VUCA environment requires agility, new information and perspectives, and experimentation. We can no longer apply past experience rooted in conventional skills, because whatever we assumed worked before is no longer relevant in this fast-changing environment. In addition, hard skills have a shelf life of only three to five years in this environment. This means the “new skill” paradigm is really a “meta-skill” one. Meaning, the skills we need in this environment are the higher order skills that enable and empower or catalyze other skills, predominantly soft skills. Examples of such meta-skills are curiosity and creativity. For instance, they can catalyse divergent thinking and reframing needed for critical thinking, enable empathy and collaboration, and enliven active learning and novel approaches. My research and third-party research has shown that curiosity acts as a catalytic intermediary that brings certain essential soft skills forward. This is in part because curiosity can help us cope with the stress as we are navigating the VUCA environment. This is referred to as stress tolerance. The research shows that the stress tolerance dimension of curiosity is significantly correlated with healthy work outcomes such as work engagement, job satisfaction, and constructive interpersonal workplace relationships.

J: These times where we are experiencing have an increasingly high degree of uncertainty. How does that align with the opportunities that building curiosity presents? 

A: Curiosity has been linked to behaviours characteristic of a growth mindset, such as translating failures into learning opportunities and autonomously choosing activities that stretch and develop skills. In effect, a growth mindset can promote a broadening and building of abilities stemming from continuous learning and improvement so we can transform challenges of uncertainty into opportunities. Organisations that embrace a growth mindset and stretch assignments while supporting a failure-tolerant or error management environment (vs. an error avoidant environment) reap benefits. According to research conducted by Deloitte, organisations with a learning culture have shown to be (1) 92% more likely to develop novel products and processes, (2) 52% more productive, and (3) 17% more profitable compared to organisations that do not emphasize a learning culture.

 J: A combination of your own and third-party research supports that curiosity is a gateway to multi-faceted agility. What does that mean to how we lead? 

A: Leaders need to first understand how they are showing up in terms of what they are modeling. For example, are they modeling top-down decision making, preference for conformity, proving they are right, and controlling for agreement or are they modeling a learner mindset, experimentation, openness to change, and agile failing? In parallel, leaders need to create environments of psychological safety. How organisations create a climate of psychological safety could impact how employees build stress tolerance associated with their states of curiosity, and influence if and how they experiment. Workplace psychological safety describes the perceived consequences of taking interpersonal risks within an organization and impacts how well employees perform. If an employee perceives that she or he will be ostracized for challenging the status quo or sharing a dissenting or non-conformist point of view, then that individual will continue enacting status quo behaviour and other common business cognitive biases. In turn, the employee will exist in a way that is devoid of curiosity and stretching beyond what is known. This is a recipe for stagnation for both employees and the organisation. The research, for example, shows that dissension, opposing perspectives, and debate within groups stimulates idea generation and creative problem-solving. There is an urgent call for leaders to proactively dismantle legacy systems and structures that espouse authority over inquiry and advocate routine over resourcefulness. Leaders that do not create psychologically safe environments for exploring the unconventional, conceptual testing, and experimenting, in effect, are likely supporting environments in which stress tolerance, openness to the new and unfamiliar, and a learner mindset are being stifled.

 J: You quoted a 30-year study by Fernandoz-Araoz et al. in your work which stated curiosity to be the only trait to be correlated with all core leadership success competencies. Can you elaborate?

 A: The global executive search firm Egon Zehndeaving conducted an analysis of executives’ performance over a 30-year period wherein they reported curiosity was the only one of four traits (the others being insight, engagement and determination) to be correlated with all eight leadership competencies the firm deemed critical to a leader’s success. The eight leadership competencies included: results orientation, inclusiveness, team leadership, strategic orientation, influence and collaboration, change leadership, market understanding, and developing organisational capabilities. They concluded strong scores in curiosity were a prerequisite for anyone being considered for development and promotion.

 J: How do you think we can build our own resilience as leaders and the resilience of our organisations? A: Supporting a culture of curiosity can build resilience. Anxiety is an indelible part of curiosity. Consistent with earlier research, my research was clear on this. This is one of the reasons curiosity is not only an intellectual phenomenon but also encompasses emotional and motivational qualities. Through our states of curiosity, we can allow ourselves the opportunity to go into the unfamiliar to get new and diverse reference points and have new experiences. This can bring anxiety, confusion, and doubt along the way. At the same time, by going through these experiences including the associated stress, we can increase our stress tolerance and our mental and emotional agility which enables us to be more resilient. Without these new inputs or reference points, this would not be possible. Researchers have argued that employees who are unable to effectively regulate the curiosity dimension of stress tolerance will be less likely to seek challenges and resources and more likely to feel enervated and to disengage. Even if employees crave certainty, by supporting how they express curiosity and the underlying anxiety, this can propel them to building new competencies that help them to get to a new stage of certainty; and, correspondingly, a new level of resilience. And, if in our organisations we allow ourselves to fully lean into unlearning habitual ways of doing and exploring beyond the borders of what we currently know or is familiar to us, that is when profound possibilities can emerge.