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On Positive Curiosity

| November 27, 2018

by Jim Bruce

Eric Abrams is the author of today’s Tuesday Reading.  He is Chief Inclusion Officer at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education. His essay first appeared as a leadership program reflection earlier this year. [Eric may be reached at [email protected].]

The MOR Tuesday Reading of October 23, 2018 focused on curiosity. Given my role at the Stanford Graduate School of Education, I found myself thinking about how curiosity can help us deal with issues of diversity and inclusion. I think this is particularly important for leaders; after all, leading people is an exercise in managing diversity.
One way that leaders can build trust and camaraderie in their diverse teams is by demonstrating an interest in others who seem to be very different. These differences may be cultural, based on socioeconomic class, rooted in gender identity, or any of the myriad other factors that make us who we are. And people – even those of us in leadership roles – are sometimes apprehensive about interacting across differences. How can we overcome this?
One way might be through a concept I call Positive CuriosityIt’s a pretty simple idea, really – it’s nothing more than taking the time and being interested and open to things, experiences and people that seem unfamiliar. 
Let me provide an example. Imagine that you’re in a country you’ve never visited before, having dinner at the home of a host who has been very kind and gracious during your stay. Your host brings out a platter of food, enthusiastically explaining that the recipe that has been handed down in her family for generations, and she’s clearly excited to share the dish.
And it looks and smells like something you’ve never seen; in fact, you aren’t even sure what it is. 
At that moment, is your reaction to screw up your face, wrinkle your nose, and say, “Ugh, what is this? Your family has eaten this for generations?!?” Alternatively, do you smile broadly, thank your host, and say, “Ooh, what is this? Tell me about your family’s recipe!” The sentiment, in many ways, is the same – what’s different is the attitude of positive curiosity shown in the latter example. 
Positive Curiosity allows us to demonstrate that we don’t know everything – and that we are eager to grow, to have new experiences, to consider new perspectives. Learning about the lived experience of someone different from ourselves is one of the greatest opportunities for personal development that leaders have. We can only avail ourselves of this opportunity, however, if we approach others with open ears, open hearts and open minds.  When we come to those we find different with preconceived notions, or the belief that we know all we need to know about their story, it’s very difficult to learn  – or to even have a productive conversation. 
I think that it’s important for everyone – particularly those of us interested in educating future generations and creating stronger communities where we live, work and study – to greet the world with positive curiosity


I’m with Eric on this. Slow down a bit and be interested in learning about those in our midst who are different than we are and have had different experiences than we have had. We and our organizations will be better as a result.
I trust that this will be a great week for you and your team.  .  .  .  .  jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates.  He previously was Professor of Electrical Engineering, and Vice President for Information Systems and CIO at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.