The Surprising Skill That Can Propel Your Career: Intellectual Curiosity (2024)

Whether you’ve already achieved a leadership position, hoping to get there, or just starting your career journey, intellectual curiosity is a must-have skill.

Think of it as the “Swiss Army Knife” in your leadership toolkit: It strengthens your personal capabilities and insights, helps you lead teams and work with your colleagues (at all levels), and delivers clear benefits to your employer.

Curiosity “at all levels helps leaders and their employees adapt to uncertain market conditions and external pressures,” writes Francesca Gino, a behavioral scientist and the Tandon Family Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School.

“When our curiosity is triggered, we think more deeply and rationally about decisions and come up with more-creative solutions. In addition, curiosity allows leaders to gain more respect from their followers and inspires employees to develop more-trusting and more-collaborative relationships with colleagues.”

Intellectual curiosity can be a significant differentiator in your career journey.

Confirmation Bias

The most obvious benefit is that intellectual curiosity is extremely effective at combatting confirmation bias … the inclination to not seek out opinions or information that can prove you wrong.

Curious workers (or companies who employ them, for that matter) tend to look at an issue from all perspectives: those they favor and even those they do not.

Scenario planning, stress tests and “pre-mortems” are well-known and helpful ways companies use to combat confirmation bias and, in fact, depend heavily on intellectual curiosity to implement. These tactics require time, however, and don’t really fit logically into an individual’s real-time career arc.

A better and more-immediate approach is to develop the following techniques, which can improve your learning and retention capabilities, and help you better achieve near-, mid- and long-term goals and objectives.

The Path to Get There

You can become more intellectually curious by improving your skills in the following areas.

· Engage with confidence. Don’t be afraid to ask questions or say “I don’t know.”

Step one: learn to ask better questions. “Intellectually curious leaders ask the right questions to help cut through political fiefdoms or strongly held, legacy-driven points of view,” writes Vivek Bapat, Senior Vice President, Marketing and Solutions, SAP. “They are outcome driven and shape winning perspectives.”

Conceding that you don’t know something also presents an opportunity: to learn something new. “But don’t just say ‘I don’t know’ and leave it at that,” says researcher and author Maggie Wooll. “Take it as an opportunity to rectify the gap in knowledge.”

· Broaden your focus. Learn more about yourself, while also opening your eyes to others – and to other things.

Specifically, write Juliet Bourke and Andrea Titus in the Harvard Business Review, you need to put time into learning about your own biases and blind spots and then, most importantly, take steps to level the playing field. Of particular note: be attentive to others’ cultures and adapt as required.

Another important step: Reach out to those colleagues who you know have a view that differs from your own. And don’t dismiss their response before you even hear it.

· Test existing conventions. You know there is an existing status quo. Don’t allow it the stifle your growth and learning.

Example: individuals frequently get plugged into existing roles … and that isn’t always a good thing. Better approach: Establish roles that correlate with a person’s demonstrated and potential strengths.

· Excise recklessness from creativity. Entrepreneurs, of course, love to test limits. They move quickly, experiment, and fail a meaningful amount of the time. There’s nothing wrong with any of that as long as they are learning – the successes (when they come) change lives and cultures.

Rash behavior, however, is a detriment. And creativity can sometimes lead to rash decisions. Fortunately, true intellectual curiosity optimizes the successes and minimizes the setbacks because the ideation and questioning don’t end with the initial thoughts. They continue through the implementation. It doesn’t mean you aren’t still dreaming; but leaders effectively combine dreams with details. They are doers, not just thinkers.

· Develop active listening skills. Communications success is a two-way street. But, too frequently, you’ve got other things on your mind when you are listening to someone.

Active listening, which requires intellectual curiosity, aims to solve this problem.

“Rather than giving someone a fraction of your attention, active listening is making a conscious effort to hear, understand, and retain information that’s being relayed to you,” writes Colorado State University Global.

Here’s what you need to do: don’t just hear the words … analyze them. Intent, content, and emotion. And demonstrate your interest so the other person can pick up on it.

· Slow down your judgment process. There’s a frequently told anecdote about Alfred P. Sloan, the former leader of General Motors. At a committee meeting, he inquired whether all the attendees agreed about a particular decision. No one dissented, so Sloan said he was going to postpone ongoing discussion so his reports could “develop disagreement.”

That’s a valuable piece of advice.

· Develop patience for ambiguity. Curiosity is essential to operate in “gray areas” – rather than to spend all your time operating in the black or white. In fact, gray areas essentially demand intellectual curiosity as your learnings will help you to navigate the maze and get clarity on a decision.

“Embracing ambiguity allows people to seize opportunities, take calculated risks to tackle previously unchartered territories and back themselves when they do not have all the answers,” writes Eric Albertini, Director: Learning Solutions, Future Fit Academy, who adds that, in many situations, comprehensive information is not always there to assess. “An obsession with having all the answers up front before making decisions can stymie any forward movement or progress.”

Going Forward

Each and every one of these steps will help you develop and then fine tune your intellectual curiosity. But that’s just half of the job: it’s also up to you to systematically integrate intellectual curiosity into your life.

There are journalists who work a new vocabulary word into each story they write. And logistics experts who constantly research suppliers and travel alternatives with a goal of continuously improving supply chains. And teams in the Enterprise Project Management Office trying to make cumbersome update meetings more interactive, interesting and effective.

They all are driven by intellectual curiosity. And the more they use theirs, they better they get at doing so.

Make sure it’s a priority on your to-do list.

The Surprising Skill That Can Propel Your Career: Intellectual Curiosity (2024)
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