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Why being curious not defensive wins every time

Creating cultures of learning and continuous improvement keeps organisations fresh and constantly evolving to meet the needs of their market. These cultures nurture design thinking and innovation. They foster individual and team voice and develop a fertile ground for rich debate and positive conflict. Curiosity and wonder drive discussions and debate.

Human interaction is a key component of any workplace and in these thriving cultures there is a palpable willingness to challenge our own thinking as well as the team’s. This requires a level of psychological safety that encourages debate rather than shies away from it. Timothy R. Clark, author of The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety calls this Challenger Safety. It is the highest level of safety. His definition of this level is robust: ‘Increased intellectual friction due to decreased social friction.’ At this level of psychological safety, we are willing to sit with dissonance, we seek the more confronting scenario and explore it, we are honest about what we believe is needed for change and transformation. There is a belief that having the robust debate, being curious about people’s thinking and knowledge, will bring us to better decision making.

Yet in many cultures, important conversations are avoided, feedback is not given due to the fear of people’s reactions or the consequences of speaking up. The safety is not there to engage in robust debate

There is a big dose of vulnerability and courage displayed when people first voice their opinions, concerns or ideas. What happens on the other side of this courage determines whether it is safe for them to do so within that context or not. It determines the unwritten cultural rules about voicing issues.

Our responses can follow these well-worn escape routes:

Blame U-Turn:

This strategy gives us licence to offload any responsibility I have in the situation to anyone or anything else. This one is a slippery little sucker for others to call me on, and it keeps me safe in my comfort zone. It turns the conversation from the two of us having a deep listening discussion about what we need to do to address the issue, to attributing blame outward to anywhere it will stick.

Denial Dead-End:

This option refutes the other persons’ point of view immediately and denies the validity of their opinion. It signals that it will not be possible to discuss any further and I am not open to even considering your opinion. Subject closed.

Avoidance Avenue:

In this mode I don’t create any opportunity for debate and discussion at all. I avoid asking questions, run meetings that are downloads not discussions, and give off strong vibes that make people dance around the ‘undiscussables’.

Attack Alley:

Beware to anyone who wants to venture in here with me. My main approach here is to attack any messenger that enters my arena – unless you agree with me. At my fiercest I’ll attack your performance, belittle your ideas and create fear around your job.

All these routes lead to cultures of compliance, low levels of engagement and a deadly quiet when we need transformational ideas to address challenges. With over 60% of people globally disengaged from their workplace, and Great Resignation and Quiet Quitting the context for many organisations, can we afford to use these personal defense mechanisms in our leadership? Perhaps its time to seek and alternative route.

Seeking the intrepid trail of curiosity

1. Know Your Internal Reactions

Understand what your body and mind does when you feel your defences rise. Is it in your chest, your gut, your head? Can you feel a shift in how you hold your body? Having this intel into ourselves allow for the next step to happen. Can you recognise your own behaviour in the above descriptions?

2. Step in with curiosity – both internally and externally

Ask yourself the question: What is going on for me here? Take a pause before your habitual blockade of defense kicks in. Take a breath and then ask a curious question or extending statement. Some examples: Tell me more; I’m curious about your thinking here; How would this look to you if we did it differently? I’d like to dig into this more deeply – are you open to discussing further?

3. Seek out provocation on a daily basis

Be more curious about yourself, your work, your life. This creates a more open to influence mindset. Read or listen to leadership books, podcasts and articles. Note when things are said that cause a defensive attitude and explore it. Ask provocative questions of your team and listen deeply to their insights and voice. Seek dissonance and candour from them and make it safe for them to do so.

Tracey Ezard is a keynote speaker, author and leadership and team educator. Her Ferocious Warmth leadership framework and collaborative learning culture framework, The Buzz, help leaders build environments that create both quality results and quality relationships.

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