3 Advantages to Being Curious
One of the mechanisms that led to Santa Fe‘s success: switching from being questioning to being curious.
As a highly-trained Naval Officer I was used to knowing all the answers. I would often question the crew to make sure they understood the technicalities of their equipment: “What does this valve do?”. Whenever they were stumped I would tell them the answer. I’m sure my tone was one of “you better know this.” I thought I was being curious but I was not.
Curiosity is defined, “as a desire for information in the absence of any extrinsic benefit [such as demonstrating our own knowledge].” Being suddenly reassigned to Santa Fe with two week’s notice forced me to be truly curious.
I had prepared for one submarine for an entire year but Santa Fe was a different type of sub and I no longer had all the technical answers. So I switched from questioning the crew in order to quiz their knowledge to questioning the crew in order to enhance my own. If we came across something neither of us fully understood I’d ask them to teach me about it when they could.
3 Advantages of Curiosity
I quickly realized that there were advantages to being truly curious.
- I saved mental energy because I no longer had to maintain the image of the all-knowing boss. We grow up with images of the heroic leader who knows all and gives all commands and is always right. I didn’t know all the answers for Santa Fe and I decided not to pretend like I did.
- Being curious made the crew realize they were responsible. Since I didn’t know every technical aspect of the ship, I came to rely on the crew to make the right decisions based on their knowledge and our organizational goals. This placed the burden of knowledge and responsibility on them. Suddenly training sessions were full.
- Being curious meant that I learned the information I needed to know about the technicalities of Santa Fe quickly. Plus the change in my mentality to one of growth and learning resulted in tremendous personal growth as a leader. Being curious about the technical equipment gradually expanded until I was interviewing crew members on how they thought the ship should be run. These interviews gave me a clearer picture of what changes we needed to make in order to improve the ship’s performance. Some of the questions I asked included:
- What are the things you are hoping I don’t change?
- What are the things you hope I do change?
- What are the good things about this organization we should build on?
- If you were me what would you do first?
- Why isn’t the organization running better?
- What are your personal goals for your tour here?
- What impediments do you have to doing your job?
- What will be your biggest challenge to getting this organization ready for the next pitch/product release/IPO?
- What are your biggest frustrations about how this organization is currently run?
- What is the best thing I can do for you?
Try asking some of these questions at your organization and let me know how it works. Don’t be afraid to reveal that you don’t know everything.
Knowing but Curious
Eventually I filled in the gaps in my understanding about the technical details of Santa Fe. Yet my new habit of curiosity remained. My new state of being was knowing but curious. It meant that I continued asking questions as if I didn’t know, allowing the crew the opportunity to think like leaders. This was hugely powerful because it unlocked the thinking capacity of the entire crew; everyone began thinking like his superior. One of the results of this was that long after my time at Santa Fe was over the ship continued to promote a disproportionate number of officers to command.
The following chart explains the progression. On previous ships I knew the technical details and I would question the crew to test their knowledge. Suddenly, on Santa Fe, I didn’t know all the answers and I became curious. This helped me learn the technicalities I needed to learn and I remained curious from then on.
How to Practice Being Curious:
- Next time you are having a conversation about a topic you know, pretend you don’t know. Don’t start at work, start at home, or with a new person you meet at a party. Start training your mind to be curious “off the playing field” before you take it to work.
- Assume the opposite of what you believe to be true.
- Maybe praising children is not the best for them.
- Maybe carbs are good for your diet.
- Maybe that co-worker really is trying to do their best
 Lowenstein, George. “Curiosity” Encyclopedia of Psychology. 414-415