The tension in leadership: exude confidence or nurture curiosity?
Specific strategies to manage this tension
John Maxwell, #1 New York Times bestselling author and renowned leadership expert, reflects, “In my early years as a leader I thought I was supposed to be an answering machine. No matter what someone asked, I gave direction, exuded confidence, and answered questions with clarity—whether I really knew what I was doing or not!”
We are naturally attracted to confidence in our leaders. We mistake confidence for competence. From a leader’s perspective, being open about uncertainty signals indecision. It creates panic among teams. Hence, leaders are forced to appear sure-footed even when they are not.
Consider electoral campaigns of any significance. Imagine a televised debate where the ministerial candidate admits, “I don’t know how to fix this. I’ve a theory about what may work but I’ll have to try it and see once I’m in office.” Would we ever elect this person?
Celebrated organizational psychologist and author Adam Grant explains this succinctly on The Knowledge Project podcast: “But there’s something very intoxicating about following someone who believes they’ve already found the way. I think it gives us a sense of coherence, it can give us a sense of purpose, it’s easy to put our trust in people who have a clear vision.”
Rich new knowledge needs to be continuously generated to power businesses ahead. Exploring novel solutions through trial and error underline curiosity at the workplace. But if leaders are so compelled to appear confident, how do they support curiosity?
They don’t if you go by the findings of this 2018 study published in the Harvard Business Review. “Although leaders might say they value inquisitive minds, in reality most stifle curiosity, fearing it will increase risk and inefficiency,” the study summarizes. Another HBR study from 2015 points to an inherent contradiction in workplaces across 16 industries wherein 84% respondents reported that their employers encouraged curiosity, but 60% said they had also encountered barriers to it at work.
It appears that organizations champion curiosity on their brochures but discourage its expression in their processes. Which is to say go forth and explore, but just don’t fail. What is behind this paradox?
When do organizations end up stifling curiosity?
When exploration appears to slow down decision-making. In the 2018 study, a cohort of more than 500 chief learning and chief talent development officers predominantly believed that curious people are more challenging to manage and are more likely to slow down the decision-making process, resulting in a “costly mess.” And so they tended to take recourse to top-down decision-making as a means of managing risk.
When employees are not trained to experiment efficiently and that is attributed to a process problem (not a skill one). Jehad Affoneh tweets: “Curiosity is a game changer. It could really up-level you as a leader. Knowing how to find your way is more important than knowing the way already.”
When short-term performance goals for employees are the org standard. When we chase hard short-term goals, we optimize our efforts to yield something tomorrow, even if it comes at the cost of something bigger later. It’s an immediate gain for possible long-term pain.
When something has worked in the past (“it ain't broke, so why try to make it better?”): This is symbolic of cases when teams do not know the recipe that has worked in the past, so they’re reluctant to tinker with it as long as the final dish is palatable. While this may keep businesses from starving, it will rarely delight.
Tying all these whens is a common thread: living with uncertainty is stressful. Exploring solutions takes up more of our time than arriving at the decision. Making this journey in darkness can be a daunting experience. Shane Parrish, who runs the Farnam Street blog, opines: “We would almost rather be wrong and certain than uncertain and land in the correct spot because it wreaks havoc on us.” It is this aversion to uncertainty that leads to the management of risk through top-down decision-making.
The anti-curious leadership cycle
Certainty is not very helpful to the process of truthseeking. Once it becomes important to be seen as assured, we start projecting ourselves as such. We build our identities around the dominant perception. We now have a vested interest in our beliefs being true (because we’ve tethered our identity to them), so we are less likely to want to discover anything new. Changing our views is changing our identity. At this point, we have called off the search for truth.
Imagine now having to pick the leaders of tomorrow. What are the odds we’re going to choose someone for their depth of curiosity? If we do so we would be going against our own case for leadership. We’ve forged a career being forceful and clear-sighted without costing our employers a lot of money or time in exploration. Why would we pick for our jobs anyone whose personal metrics are different?
How can leaders help organizations come out of this cycle?
Adopt a scientist mindset: Scientists tend to express their confidence in percentages, not absolutely, so that when circumstances change their view also changes. Treating our views as theories to be tested grants us the freedom to figure out reality while saving us some of the embarrassment of being proven wrong.
Deconstruct gut feel and explain thinking to the team. Leaders often have an intuition that has been honed by experience. They have developed mental heuristics that take them to a decision faster. But if they are unable to articulate their internal process, it often leads to a “trust me” scenario. By explaining the variables that, when different, would change the decision, they equip their teams to follow a process in the future while also avoiding being seen as indecisive should they reverse their initial decision at any point in time later.
Avoid first-solution decision-making. Typical non-deliberative thinking is to jump at the first solution that crosses our mind. This option is often prone to a host of biases: recency, availability, and, most of all, confirmation. Following a decision-making process weeds out biases.
Hire for mindset, not just smartness. Sometimes, hiring smart people can kill the overall curiosity of the team. It can lead to self-censorship among the rest for fear of coming off as intellectually inferior. So employees swallow their questions for fear of being judged naive and their learning curve stunts. Unchallenged, the smart joinee is prone to overconfidence bias, which immediately slows down their pace of learning. Now we have a situation where ideas are seeing the light of day unchallenged and ownership is poor for implementation because the process is not collaborative. Emphasizing on a curiosity mindset from the top preempts this situation.
Ask the right questions. Leaders with their experience can help their teams pick the right hypotheses to test from several possible, thus saving time in injudicious experiments that are less likely to yield insightful results. Without the right skillset, a curiosity mindset will only see us using up the runway without taking flight.
Define the land of analysis paralysis and stay out of it. The spirit of inquiry, left unexamined, can lead to circular discussions and a lot of wasted time. Exploring in divergent thinking mode followed by solutioning in convergent mode helps demarcate stages of inquiry and manage the process of exploration.
There’s a contradiction in the objectives of leaders. While leaders realize that encouraging trial and error is essential to long-term growth, not being seen as sure-footed decision-makers is detrimental to their image and team morale. This paradox creates tension between their actions and words. It is helpful for leaders to cultivate specific strategies to navigate out of this conundrum.
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