Why Be More Curious About Others in the Workplace?

Without curiosity towards others, you are missing their different experiences and perspectives and you will also not hear how and why they are different. That goes for a background experience, a perspective on a decision or an opinion on a new process change. If you want to lead and live with open ears and open eyes, you must be willing to both listen and learn from others.

“Because when we’re curious, we are open to hearing how different people experience the workplace and the world,” said Pulsely co-founder Betsy Bagley in an interview with theglasshammer. “If you’re not even curious about how people’s backgrounds shape their experience, you won’t be able to hear that it’s not the same for us all.”

Without curiosity towards others, you will not only miss that another’s experience or perspective is not the same, but you will also not hear how and why they are different. And that goes for a background experience, a perspective on a decision or an opinion on a new process change. If you want to lead and live with open ears and open eyes, you must be willing to both listen to others and learn from others in the world.

The Value of Curiosity Amidst Both ‘Difference’ and ‘Sameness’

‘Othering’ or ‘creating unreal others’ is something Tara Brach, Ph.D., author, clinical psychologist, and internationally known teacher of mindfulness meditation writes about: “The more different someone seems from us, the more unruly they may feel to us. We can too easily ignore or dismiss people when they are of a different race or religion, etc … Whether extreme or subtle, typing others makes the real human invisible to our eyes and closes our heart.” 

‘Othering’ is the opposite of curiosity, because it means creating distance or discounting another’s humanity, often by sticking to stuck perceptions instead of getting curious. It creates a two-dimensional distorted cardboard mental image instead of a whole human being. When we ‘other,’ we do not grant others the same complexity of inner world that you experience. We can ‘other” our partners or the people in your family or our own social circle when arguing or by failing to be curious about their perspectives. But it’s even easier to chronically ‘other’ those who are easier to think of as different to us. A great word for ‘othering’ in action in the workplace is ‘stereotyping.’ And as we know in processes like hiring, our ‘othering’ bias-based heuristics are faster than conscious thought. 

But it’s not only ‘othering’ that can distance us from the individuals that we work with. So can our assumptions of ‘sameness,’ because when we think we already know, we stop listening. Closeness communication bias is at play when we assume shared perspectives and communication effectiveness because of shared context or familiarity. We think we know what someone is talking about - that ‘oh, I gotcha’, talking the same language vibe. But while this bias is predicated on familiarity or sameness, it inhibits real listening, connection and understanding.  

Peter Bregman, author of Leading with Emotional Courage, explains in Harvard Business Review that we can often turn away from powerful moments of vulnerable connection in work discussions by pre-empting them with assumptions, even when that assumption dresses up as empathy, solidarity or understanding. It takes more emotional courage to open to others raw experiences than jump to empathy. 

“I don’t actually know what is true. Which means that before demonstrating understanding, I have to develop it. I need to ask questions and be open and listen and learn,” reflects Bregman about a work colleague who reported feeling unsettled. “Which takes humility. Humility is not knowing. And that, eventually and almost always, leads to empathy which leads to compassion.”

For example, if I tell you a single mother is struggling at work, what is your assumption about her challenge? But now I tell you her sister is ill. Genuine and open curiosity towards others is the anecdote to othering, to assumptions and to disconnection. But it’s more than that, because it’s also the path to unlocking the power in embracing difference

Why Seeking Different Points of View Matters

The business case for curiosity is strong and even stronger when adapting to uncertain market conditions and external pressures. Because as behavioral scientist Francesca Gino writes, “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.” 

Sociable curiosity, per Richard Phillips, is specifically a curiosity relative to other people - a strong desire to know or learn something about others in society. Empathetic curiosity is wondering and finding out about others. Relational curiosity is being curious with others about something (eg together pondering about a new idea on the table), which sparks and reveals connection without the subject matter being directly personal. Sociable curiosity done well has the capacity to bring people together and bridge both differences and social distances.

Sociable curiosity is not different groups co-existing in shared spaces while living in their own separate worlds (‘pragmatic civility’), but about reaching through to active engagement and forging relationships where diversity exists. It’s the potential to create more meaningful encounters that create respect and recognition of others and taps the immeasurable value of diversity. 

In making the business case for curiosity in general, Gino has found that when curiosity is active, we are less likely to fall into confirmation bias and stereotyping people, so we make fewer errors in decision-making. Being in a curiosity mindset also encourages perspective-taking among members of a group, the ability to step into each other’s shoes and be interested in the ideas of others, so it reduces group conflict. Also, when curiosity is heightened, people share information more openly and listen better, improving team performance. 92% of people surveyed reported that curiosity was a catalyst for job satisfaction, motivation, innovation and high performance.

Not only that, but research has shown that “openness to people’s ideas”  - a particular dimension of social curiosity that reflects an appreciation and proactive search for good ideas, regardless of the originator - is strongly linked to workplace well-being and healthy workplace functioning, and offers a competitive advantage. 

Further, curiosity about others helps to create meaningfulness around work. Research has found employees experience richer interpersonal relationships when they come from a curiosity mindset, and that enhances their sense of meaning - which is perhaps more contingent on who we are with than what we are doing. Curious people are less anxious, hesitant and defensive when meeting strangers. Curious employees are more likely to receive social support and are better at building connections, commitment and trust in teams.

Additionally, being curious about others is part of creating a growth culture, which Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella calls switching to a culture of ‘learn-it-alls’ instead of ‘know-it-alls.’

When we are attuned to curiosity, we are open and expansive and collaborative, not protective and contractive and competitive. We become flexible to think beyond initial impressions, of both people and ideas, and support a creative and dynamic work environment that values each other and our unique contributions.

Respect and Curiosity In Understanding Others’ Viewpoints

When it comes to bridging difference, some may have trepidation. We all know what curiosity gone wrong can look like: such as microaggressions. Phillips talks to the power relations of curiosity, particularly when the curiosity of the majority is directed at the lives of minorities. Curiosity becomes problematic when it stakes a socialized norm and then ‘others’ difference through that lens, laden with underlying stereotypes or assumptions. Microaggressions are not curiosity. They are verbal, conscious or unconscious, ‘othering.’

To meet across difference, we have to drop the comfort of ‘othering.’ We have to open to listen to and learn from people. Here’s four ways you can. 

1) Acknowledge your blindspots: To be curious about others, self-awareness is key because to know the value of learning from others you must 1) be aware that you lack knowledge about others and 2) care enough to want to know more. Drop the shame that you should know (it is self-defeating and will only send your protections up) and be open to know, starting now.

2) Active listening: Whether it’s in a one-on-one manager check-up, a moment with a colleague or intentionally attending an ERG meeting, practice active listening. Eye contact can communicate you are listening and subjunctive language (perhaps, maybe) leaves spaciousness for the other person to share more. Notice your inclination to make comparisons or conclusions about other’s experiences and stay open, instead. Open-ended and confirming questions help to make sure you understood correctly. Such as:

  • Open: Tell me more? What would help you to feel more supported around this? 
  • Confirming: So what I think am hearing is that X situation is bringing up feelings of frustration because Y and Z. Have I understand correctly?

3) Hold truly inclusive meetings: Relational curiosity - being curious with others - is the optimized potential when you run inclusive meetings. Why? Because when everyone feels free and safe to contribute with their unique voice, you open up the magic of applied diversity. It becomes a sideways mirror of learning about each other through our differing perspectives while focusing on something, and builds respect and awe in the nuances of our perception. It’s ultimately where inclusive workplaces thrive, because beyond ourselves, we get the best of each other. 

4) Perspective-taking exercises, mutual mentoring, expanding your inner circle: In a 2018 On Being podcast episode about bridging radical disagreement, Krista Tippet shared how one student (an Orthodox Jew) invited another student (a white power heir-apparent) to Shabbat dinner during their time together in university, and to a series of conversations across two years that would forever change him and disrupt his conditioning around difference. It’s an extreme and incredibly courageous example. But the point is this - the more you sit with others, the more you step into their shoes, the more you are willing to hear and learn - the more you are expanding your circle and the more wide open your ability to listen to others and to the whole of yourself, so everyone can show up more fully.

Because it’s not the same for us all, but inside of difference, there are so many places where we can meet each other and connect. And when we do, we are all more

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