Startup HR: Are You Curious? Foster Innovation by Asking More Questions

As leaders, it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking we are supposed to know all the answers. That to be proficient as a “boss”, you need to know things, to be the person who has the great ideas and understands the market. That what your people need from you is answers and ideas.

I would argue that what we need more of as leaders is not answers, but questions.

Why questions? Being curious is automatically an open state, one that is receptive to new ideas, other points of view, and creative alternatives.

When we are curious we allow for new perspectives that can take us in a wildly successful new direction. When we are curious we soften and become more vulnerable, which makes us infinitely more approachable and relatable to the people around us. And when we are curious our minds and hearts are open in a way that isn’t judgmental, which means we can learn.

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For example, if we encounter a rude checkout clerk at the grocery store on the way home, we can react one of two ways. We can be pissed off that she was so rude and build all kinds of stories in our minds about what a terrible person she is and how dare she and I’m the customer and blah, blah, blah. Or we can soften into curiosity. We can wonder why she’s being rude when she works in a customer service job. Did something happen today that deeply hurt or scared her? Is she doing this job because her kid is sick and she needs the money to pay for his bills? What is it that is making her so unpleasant?

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We may not always find the answers, but simply being willing to ask ourselves and others more questions is a powerful tool to engage and lead. At work, when we are willing to ask questions rather than offer our opinions or answers, we do three key things that build engagement and leadership:

  1. We demonstrate that we value our people’s opinions. Even when our employees ask us for the answer, responding with curiosity about their perspective instead shows them that we think they bring something valuable to the table, that they know just as much (or more perhaps) than we do. This builds confidence, loyalty, and engagement.
  1. We foster innovation. You don’t have all the best ideas, neither do I. When we ask for multiple perspectives we generate more creativity, more energy, and more solutions to issues. Continually jumping in with your answer before you ask others what they think means they’ll eventually stop offering their opinions. And that means you stop both innovation and engagement.
  1. We model progressive leadership. Our goal as leaders is not to be the smartest guy in the room. It is to create the conditions for all the smart people in the room to contribute in the way that best serves them and our goals. By stepping back and demonstrating that we think everyone has something to contribute, we model leadership as inclusive, respectful, and engaging. When we regularly get out of the way, we allow others to try out their own leadership in low-threat situations before they are called on to use it when it may be more critical, like in a customer crisis or a sticky team dynamics problem. We build their capacity to lead, which strengthens our teams and our end results.