Culture club #4: “‘Curiouser and curiouser!’ cried Alice.” Our series on organisational culture highlights the importance of seeing from others’ perspectives – plus, four top tips on how to capitalise on your curiosity
As summer approaches and your colleagues begin to discuss their glamorous holiday plans, imagine yourself reclining on a damp British beach, licking a stick of Blackpool rock – perhaps one with the town’s famous tourism slogan, “kiss me quick”, running through it.
Type 2 diabetes aside, this is one of the ways in which Heather Bingham, organisational psychologist at BOOST&Co, visualises culture: the tenets, or beliefs and attitudes, that define a company and can help it to grow. “The tenets of your organisation run from top to bottom,” she says. “Imagine a stick of Blackpool rock that spells the same word wherever you choose to break it, however massive the stick.”
Here, Bingham – who compiled the list of seven words that describe everyone in the company’s team – tells the story of how curious was added to authentic, brave, self-motivated, smart, interested and interesting. “At BOOST&Co, being curious means anticipating the next points or questions that the person you are trying to convince will raise,” Bingham says.
Curiosity makes teams stronger
Expressing curiosity is particularly important during credit committee meetings, in which the whole of BOOST&Co’s team, led by partners Lance Mysyrowicz and Sonia Powar, makes investment decisions. Everyone who attends these meetings is encouraged first to read documents in advance, and then to ask questions to develop the group’s understanding of each case.
“It was in these meetings that the issue of curiosity became most obvious,” Bingham says. “Lance and Sonia were concerned that they were sometimes the only people asking the important questions. They knew that everyone was capable of thinking further around each problem, but they didn’t understand why others were not raising equally insightful queries. We wanted to change the dynamics, not least to avoid groupthink.”
Mysyrowicz, meanwhile, had noticed a disjunction between how members of the team behaved at work and at home. “Sonia and I realised that people were strangely uncurious in their professional lives,” he says. “They have eclectic hobbies, so we knew they were curious outside the office, but this didn’t always translate into the same behaviour at work. ‘Why is this number so high?’ ‘What does it tell me about the firm’s financial situation?’ ‘Have I understood this to its core, or am I satisfied with a basic explanation?’”
Where curiosity and responsibility merge
Powar also identified the need to stimulate professional curiosity, for the sake of the business as well as the individuals involved. “We wanted the team to behave as though they were responsible for the decisions that were made,” she says. “First, to broaden their thinking, so that they were able to challenge their own deals, as well as those of their colleagues; and second, to help them progress towards becoming decision-makers themselves.”
Powar believes that formalising this link between curiosity and responsibility was key. “The team needed to realise that this was part of their training and their job,” she says. “We needed to hear their questions, not only to help us make the best decisions in the short term, but also to bring through more decision-makers in the organisation. Lance and I wanted the team to ask their questions first, hoping that by the time it was our turn, all of our queries had been raised.”
Bingham went back to her first principle: that members of a team cannot be asked to behave in a manner that is fundamentally opposed to the way in which its leaders behave. “I had to explore whether we were asking people to do something that either wasn’t being demonstrated to them or that ran counter to our culture,” she says.
Are you a convincer or the convinced?
Bingham identifies two distinct roles that are in play during situations such as BOOST&Co’s credit committee meetings. “Lance and Sonia are the people being convinced, but they aren’t the convincers,” she says. “If they have to pose the questions that they expect their staff to ask, they are forced to switch from their own role – the convinced – to the role of convincers, which should be carried out by the team.”
Having identified the problem, Bingham added curiosity to the list of BOOST&Co’s cultural tenets – and after the organisational psychologist integrated it in the company’s coaching programme, ensuring that it is now defined and discussed throughout the organisation, Powar noticed a positive impact on the firm’s employees.
“Some questions are to help your own understanding, some are to convince others, but all questions lead to learning the art of being curious and improving the ability to make your own decisions, be that today or in the future,” Powar says. “Curiosity is like a muscle. The more you challenge yourself to think through things and ask questions, the easier it becomes.”
How to be curious – four top tips
So, if curiosity – much like willpower – is a muscle that can be strengthened through regular use, how can you capitalise on your own curiosity at work?
- Do what has been asked of you, and deliver on time. “The likelihood is that you won’t get the chance to demonstrate your curiosity if you don’t earn the right by delivering what was agreed,” Bingham says.
- Jot down the thoughts you have along the way that don’t fit within the constraints of the work you’re doing. “Don’t leave these jottings in your head, but have them ready for discussion,” she says.
- Explore your thoughts. “Once you’ve written these down, take time to explore them by doing additional research. Go down some rabbit-holes, until you’re satisfied that you understand your thoughts in detail,” Bingham says.
- Role-play. “Think about people who ask questions that you would never have thought of, queries that challenge your thinking,” she says. “Climb into their brains and try to formulate the questions they’ll ask. Start with identifying the questions; the answers will come with time.”
Bingham points to the famous quotation about curiosity in the children’s classic Alice in Wonderland. “‘Curiouser and curiouser!’ cried Alice (she was so much surprised that for the moment she quite forgot how to speak good English). ‘Now I’m opening out like the largest telescope that ever was!’”
Lewis Carroll’s words “hit the mark in part”, the organisational psychologist says. “We demonstrate curiosity when we ask questions, but we usually ask them from the perspective of our own view of the world. The key is to try to ask of ourselves the questions that people with other perspectives will ask as well.”
To find out more about Heather Bingham’s culture map, get in touch via firstname.lastname@example.org
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Coming soon… Culture Club #5: what the organisational psychologist Edgar Schein’s “infusion of outsiders” means for a fast-growing business – and how to manage it