The Power of Curiosity: Connecting Curiosity, Engagement and Culture


By Isabelle St-Jean

Remember when we were all naturally curious? Without that driving force in our childhood, we would not have explored, discovered and learned all that was essential to our growth and development.

What if, in our workplaces now, we could rediscover curiosity as a source of innovation and a conduit to clear, transformative, interpersonal communication? What if, like a search-light, curiosity could illuminate the terrain beyond the known, as well as the limitations of our assumptions, prejudgements and predetermined solutions?

With its roots in French, the word curiosity initially referred to attention to details and the desire to learn—a dynamic of being that does not lend itself to our complex work and current fast pace. Driven by speed with multiple competitions for our attention, we don’t often allow curiosity to lead us into deeper realms of inquiry whether at work or at home.

In light of this, if HR professionals are to help organizations thrive as cultural catalysts, curiosity needs to be more fully embraced as both a strength and a skill set.

ABSORBing The Power of Curiosity
In their book, The Power of Curiosity, authors Kathy Taberner and Kirsten Taberner Siggins, state that while curiosity was natural to us as children, we now require a certain mindset and specific skills to inject it back in our lives. Beginning with the importance of being fully present and listening with intent, they break down the skills underlying curiosity with the acronym ABSORB:

A – Attention
B – Body Language and Tone of Voice
S – Stop and Focus
O – Open to Understanding, Not Judging
R – Repeat through Paraphrase
B – Becalm the Gremlins

Indeed, as the authors revisit, it is by only by truly listening, or absorbing what is being revealed in conversation, that we become present and all things become possible.

Attention Above All
Keeping attention foremost, this book points out that not all listening is equal. Here is where the quality of our attention—the ability to suspend all other thoughts or distractions—can really make a difference. It’s about having the strength of mind to stay truly committed and connected in the context of any given conversation. In the absence of such attention, conversations literally derail, common focus vanishes and and the value or outcome of the conversation greatly diminished if not entirely lost.

Listening Beyond Words
Regarding “body language and tone of voice,” it is easy to forget that how we say things often speaks louder than what we say. Research on verbal and nonverbal communications from Albert Mehrabian, professor Emeritus of Psychology, UCLA, found that only seven per cent of the message is conveyed by the words we speak; the remaining 93 per cent of communication is being conveyed by gestures, facial expressions and tone of voice. This reminds us that if we are truly attentive and curious, we may be able to notice what is being expressed in the non-verbal realm and then inquire in a timely manner.

Following through, if we stop and focus, we become open to understanding, not judging becomes the norm both regarding ourselves and in our professional capacities evaluating and aiding the performance of others. As we repeat through paraphrase, we may also gently reflect on the contrast or congruence we observe between what the employee is saying—and what is being conveyed.

Intent on better understanding this discrepancy we could explore the cause of this disconnect and offer support via new more effective behaviours or habits. As an HR professional truly engaged in such a conversation, you becalm the gremlins within—those inner voices that tend to distract us, threaten to take control or otherwise interfere with a truly attentive, curiosity-driven conversation—in order to do so for others.

By better ABSORBing such simple wisdoms, we avoid approaching employees with preconceived ideas of how and what will “fix” them or their challenges. Alternatively, we augment the likelihood of employees feeling seen, heard and respected while nurturing trust—bedrock to any positive culture.

Harnessing New HR Trend and Influence
The validation of these concepts were confirmed in a recent conversation with Raya Rahbari, a certified coach and organizational HR consultant at a large transportation company in Vancouver. While she acknowledged that HR has not been traditionally known for its tendency to innovate, we are living in a time of exciting transition as new models of working continue to shift HR from transactional to transformational.

Rahbari views this as being driven by a mix of curiosity, coaching and necessity as HR’s role and models of interaction continue to shift. Nowhere is this more apparent, she adds, than in the expanding focus on investing in people and a deeper appreciation for who they are and how they contribute to the organization—not just for what they produce.

Using the analogy of the human body, Rahbari likens HR to the heart of the organization as it is linked to every other part of the body. Similarly, as the heart circulates blood through every organ in the entire body, HR professionals circulate their influence in the veins of the organization as they interact in authentic presence with employees, managers and leaders.

The (Engaging) Power of Why
Another powerful testament to the power of curiosity can be found in the pages of The Power of Why by analyst, author and past conference presenter Amanda Lang. Lang too is a strong believer that the foundation of an engaging workplace culture lies within encouraging people to question the status quo while striving to invent new ways of doing things.

Without that empowerment to find solutions and implement changes as necessary, Lang states, employees are at risk of just trying to circumvent challenges and settle into passivity or complacency. This also marks off ramp to the slippery slope to disengagement.

As Lang reminds us in her book, being self-engaged is rooted in simply caring about what happens and how it happens at work—that includes a persistence willingness to invest of ourselves without holding back or protecting ourselves.

Most employees need to be coaxed out of their comfort zone from time-to-time and this is where the coaching skills of an HR professional can make a real difference—as Mary Beth O’Neill speaks of in Executive Coaching with Backbone and Heart—a “signature presence” is needed. That quality of presence, in O’Neill’s eyes, is a unique combination of character strengths, experiences, skills and intrinsic values blended with an open heart and a spine strong enough to support others.

From Why to What
While asking “why” is key to keeping curious, let us remember the importance of “what” and the magic it can ignite. As highlighted by Ian Gibson’s article, “Relational Leadership Opens Doors to Success,” in the fall 2017 edition of PeopleTalk, it is only asking ourselves “what” we can do for our staff that we become truly instrumental in “revolutionizing” our workplaces. Seeing ourselves as cultural catalysts—with a gentle but perseverant revolution in mind and heart—will raise the whole workplace into new realms of excellence and engagement.

Professional speaker, author and business coach, Isabelle St-Jean, RSW, PCC brings to her clients two decades of experience in leading, educating and providing practical solutions to major work/life challenges and transitions.

(PeopleTalk Winter 2017)

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