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The Case for Curiosity

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Mike Gent and Keith Reester
February 12, 2024

More than 2,500 years ago, the Greek philosopher Heraclitus put into words the belief that “the only constant in life is change.” No one would disagree that still holds today; if anything, it is more pertinent than ever. So why, then, do we crave consistency? What can we do to overcome our fear of change inevitably coming our way?

Humans have always liked routine, helping us feel more in control of our lives. But when this desire leads to resisting or rejecting change, we limit our growth and development, keeping us from realizing our potential. In contrast, nurturing our curiosity fuels learning, discovery and adaptability.

Often, if not daily, in local government, we receive communications from residents who are unhappy or dissatisfied with some of the city’s infrastructure or service levels. A natural response tendency might be to explain why something is the way it is. This approach demonstrates our knowledge and defends the status quo, which, if the resident is not persistent, also allows us to end the interaction believing there is no further need for follow-up. This approach rarely converts dissatisfaction to satisfaction while reinforcing negative stereotypes of government bureaucracy. However, if we choose to practice curiosity, use active listening, following up with open-ended questions to dig deeper into their concern, sometimes we are rewarded with a deeper understanding of the issue that can uncover real solutions or opportunities that address the underlying needs that may not have been obvious in the initial interaction.

In a recent example, a resident called complaining about the quality of audio amplification in the city’s council chambers. The resident’s reduced hearing led to challenges in understanding council members’ comments during public meetings. Recently completed renovations in the chamber significantly upgraded the facility’s features. A natural response to the citizen may have been to explain the changes and share that no further enhancements were planned. However, the city team listened to the concerns and asked questions, helping transform the individual’s relationship into a partnership and improving the circumstances. While investigating the hearing assistance devices, it was discovered they had not been upgraded along with the room. Older line-of-sight technology was no longer effective in amplifying the audio for those individuals who utilize assisted listening devices. The realization sparked the team’s curiosity about new technology, and they were able to identify several affordable advanced assisted listening systems combining Wi-Fi and radio frequency technologies, easily overcoming the line-of-sight challenges. Empathy and curiosity are profoundly related, and developing these attributes within ourselves and our organizations will make us healthier, more creative and better able to make the most of the opportunities available to us.

Leaders should model inquisitiveness while welcoming and celebrating questions and more meaningful conversations among our teams. Research has confirmed some of the benefits of curiosity include:

•          enhancing memory

•          increasing patience

•          inviting and prolonging engagement; and

•          sparking innovation

In one study, participants who were highly curious about a fact were 30 percent more likely to recall it later compared to peers with little or no interest. Another study found that participants with heightened curiosity working on solving a puzzle were willing to spend more time identifying a solution than those with less curiosity—patience and sustained engagement support deeper understanding and increase the likelihood of success.

A study measuring the curiosity of those faced with trying to identify and understand how something worked found that higher curiosity significantly correlated with a greater quantity of/more creative ideas than participants with little curiosity. Participants with reduced curiosity also generally settled on their first idea, which could have been more ambitious and exciting.

There are also many team-building and relational benefits to leading with curiosity, which can be an inspiring antidote to judgment. When we curiously ask questions, trust and engagement are supported, which invites others to be more fully engaged, reduces natural defensiveness and allows opportunities for those who may be more reserved to contribute. Truly embracing curiosity means we begin questioning things without attachment to the answer, opening us up to other possibilities. Research indicates that curiosity is essential to likability as well. Curious people are more successful in forming positive connections with others, tend to be less aggressive and are more resilient to social setbacks.

While certainty and stability may seem enticing, the proven benefits available through cultivating curiosity can help us overcome our fear of change. We can:

•          accelerate our personal and professional growth

•          become more productive

•          enhance our general well-being; and

•          be more enjoyable to be around

Remember to be curious; you may be pleasantly surprised where that curiosity leads you.

Authors: Mike Gent, Deputy City Manager, City of Littleton, CO [email protected]. Keith Reester, Public Works & Utilities Director, City of Littleton, CO [email protected]

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