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Curiosity or Expertise?

Remember the joy of wonder? The spark of curiosity? For children, these are easy to come by. Kids are naturally open to the world and question everything.
As we grow up, we learn that it is “knowledge,” not “questions,” that earn us respect. Expertise dwells in the land of knowledge - parents and teachers know more, and they're in charge. Knowledge is power. Seeking (curiosity) can be misinterpreted as less powerful than telling (expertise).

In the business world, eager curiosity is often associated with being a “newbie.” Newbies are expected to ask lots of questions. A newbie is entitled to ask, “Why do we run meetings like this?” Or, “Who is that person in the sweater vest?” Or, “Why do we use that vendor?”

After a brief period of time, though, questions can give the impression that we are unprepared or less knowledgeable than we should be. Expertise becomes the standard expectation, and it nudges us away from curiosity. (Less "seeking," more "telling.")

Do you remember thinking, “I can’t ask that question - I should already know the answer"? The pressure to appear professional leads us to assert ourselves convincingly, even when we feel unsure. We tell when we should seek. When we choose expertise over curiosity, valuable resources go unused.
As we gain longevity and leadership in the workplace, we're called upon to know more. This is to be expected. But if you can retain your curiosity, while deepening your understanding of the business, you'll have the best of both worlds.

In my work with supervisors and managers, they sometimes tell me that their teams look to them for direction. They say, “If I don’t provide answers, nothing gets done.” Or, “My people wait for me to tell them everything.” They believe that their expertise is indispensable and simply giving direction saves time, money and effort. “If I don’t provide answers,” they think, “I'll lose my credibility and authority.” Curiosity takes too much time; giving answers and direction is far more efficient.
Similarly, directors and executives tell me, “I am supposed to set the direction of the organization. I’d better have the answers because that’s what they are paying me for, right?” When leaders provide all the answers, new ideas and creative solutions don't appear to be valued.  

These traditional viewpoints hold some validity - but consider the cost. What's lost when the “teller” runs the show and “seeking” is associated with inexperience?


Your competitive edge is lost. You waste the resources that flow from curiosity: innovation, flexibility, improvement, agility.


Realize that asking (seeking), rather than telling, shows a value for, and confidence in, the contribution that others provide.

Leaders, imagine that your job is to create a team of problem-solvers!

Use curiosity and questioning to learn what your team is capable of, to brainstorm new processes, to tackle nagging issues in a fresh way.

No organization will earn or keeps its competitive advantage without harnessing the ideas, energy, talent, and experiences of its people. In our fast-paced and changing world, leaders can no longer provide all of the expertise. To expect leaders to provide the answers puts too heavy a burden on too few people, and is a colossal waste of talent.
How do you move towards harnessing the curiosity and problem-solving powers of your organization? How do you nurture curiosity while building expertise and getting the work done? It's a paradigm shift that begins with these simple steps:

Step 1: Pause.
When faced with a challenging situation, train yourself to take a few deep breaths. Check in with your body and your thoughts. Are you feeling tense or nervous? Thoughts racing? Are you desperately seeking ground to stand on? Breathe again and remind yourself that you will be fine, even if you are not the expert with a ready answer.

Step 2: Ask one question.
"Tell me more.” This phrase opens up the interaction further, allowing natural curiosity to surface. It validates the inquiry. Elaboration and further insight can clear the mind.

Step 3: Dig deeper.
Learn more; ask another question. Ask about feelings or interpretations. Ask about the implications of the situation. The bigger the picture, the greater the list of possible solutions.

Retaining and cultivating a sense of curiosity in the workplace can deliver big rewards. Along with building broad expertise, demonstrating curiosity is a critical leadership skill. It will help you leverage your team's hidden resources.

Seek more often; tell less often. Let curiosity and expertise gain from, and build upon, each other.


About the Author:  Claire Laughlin is a highly regarded training expert who has dedicated her career to studying and improving patterns of communication in organizations. Claire works across various industries, coaching individuals and creating large scale, global-reaching training programs designed to uplift and support excellence across functions and cultural divides. Claire shares her expertise by offering training solutions for all levels of professional development.


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