Case 4: It Pays to Check It Out

Effective leaders are naturally curious. They are always open to learning and will take whatever opportunities they have to gather different people's observations and opinions. Everyone has some curiosity, but it can get buried when people feel disconnected, too connected, too busy or anxious. Being curious is both openness to hearing what goes on in other people's heads and an ability to find out. To master this skill, you need to learn how to help others become aware of and tell you about the lenses they look though and what their experience is of a given situation. There are two parts to this. One is just the getting people to be willing to tell you the truth of their experience. But people are not always aware of what their experience is and everyone has some parts of their experience that they aren't aware of. The Curious Self uses skills and techniques to help other people become more aware of their experience even as they are talking about it.

Fred, a supervisor in accounting, was an old-timer with a long memory and high standards, who let people know, with no quibbling, when they made a mistake. Alana, an HR manager who supported him, happened to be there on unrelated business one day when she observed him berating a young, cowed employee. She was angered by the emotional abuse she witnessed and had a number of negative judgments about him and his behaviour. She was also curious, however, about what kind of experience led him to act that way.

She followed him back to his office, knocked on the door, and asked if he had a minute. Fred looked at Alana suspiciously, no doubt thinking that she was going to give him a lecture about his behaviour, and motioned to a chair. Then she said something like: "I was watching you out there and it occurred to me that you must really care about the quality of work coming out of your department." His face took on a bemused look; he took her measure and then said, "No, that's not it. I just want so much for them, the young ones, and they don't know how tough it really is. But after they work for me for a while they get it, and they move on to better positions."

It turns out Fred had managed the department for a long, long time, and believed he had been dead-ended early in his career because no one had pushed him. As he talked about how much he wanted for the "bright-eyed innocents" who came to him in entry-level jobs, he pulled out a list from his files of everyone who had ever worked for him and where they now were in the company. He choked a little as he looked over the list, as if each name were some precious creation of his that he had loved and nurtured, taking great pride in those who had advanced far. Alana left with a very different story about Fred and a much greater willingness and ability to be in partnership with him in the future.

If Alana had gone into that conversation focused on her negative judgments, wanting to change Fred before understanding him, she would never have found out what was really behind his actions. It was a tender, heartfelt thing he shared with her, and people don't do that when they are being judged negatively by others. Fred's theory of action-the best way to "toughen up" his apprentices-might not be yours or mine. But that is a different issue from thinking Fred is a bad, troubled, or evil person. From this point, both are available for further conversation.

Learn the skills of being a Curious Self in Innervate's Clear Leadership course.

learn more - case 5: you get more
of what you pay attention to

The search for truth is more precious than its possession.

- Albert Einstein

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