“Be curious, not judgemental”.
It could easily be something one of our tutors said.
But it is taken from the hit TV series Ted Lasso.
The show follows Ted, an American football coach hired as the manager of fictional Premier League club AFC Richmond, with the secret intention that his lack of experience in soccer – or real football – will lead to failure.
It is a great series. But there is one particular scene that sticks in our minds.
It comes when Ted is challenged to a game of darts by Rupert, the baddie, who assumes he can’t play.
As Ted throws the winning arrows, he produces a memorable speech about curiosity.
“Guys have underestimated me my entire life,” he said. “And for years I never understood why. It used to really bother me.
“Then one day, I was driving my little boy to school, and I saw this quote by Walt Whitman. It said: be curious, not judgemental.
“I like that.
“So, I get back in my car, and it hits me. All of them fellas that used to belittle me, not a single one of them was curious. They thought they had everything all figured out. So, they judged everything, and they judged everyone.
“And I realised that their underestimating of me — who I was had nothing to do with it. Because if they were curious, they would have asked questions.
“Questions like, have you played a lot of darts, Ted? Which I would have answered, ‘yes sir, I have. Every Sunday afternoon at a sports bar with my father. From age 10 until I was 16 when he passed away’.”
So, why do we like this scene so much?
Well, because while curiosity has long stood accused of killing the cat, it is an increasingly vital leadership skill.
“I would put curiosity up there as one of the top skills for a leader to have and develop,” Dan Boniface, head of training at The BCF Group, said.
“I was watching a documentary recently about Michael Vaughan, the former England cricket captain, who led his team to victory in the 2005 Ashes.
“He had some quality players in his team. But they were not comparable to the great Australian players of that time.
“He was saying that for the 18 months leading up to that series, it was not about him as a leader telling them how to play cricket. Instead, it was all about him finding out about the person, who they are, their character traits, personal life, and what they enjoy away from the game.
“And I thought it was a powerful way to look at curiosity and the impact it can have on a team – and there is a huge correlation between sport and business.
“Building a strong relationship with each of those players as individuals allowed him to get the best out of them and call them out when they were not performing.”
“Curiosity allows you to have open and honest conversations because you have built a strong working relationship.”
Dan says curious leaders create energy in their teams and foster a culture of learning, development, and knowledge sharing. As well as trust and transparency.
“Curiosity creates energy for you and your team,” he said.
“By being curious and inquisitive, you can draw information out of others, which develops your learning and knowledge.
“We all feel good about ourselves when we learn something new. And it creates a culture in the team of asking questions and having transparent conversations.
“You don’t want people hiding things. You want them to tell you if there is a problem or something is going on because you can try to fix it – or better still, coach them to fix it.”
But can you develop curiosity? Some people are naturally inquisitive. But others may be more apathetic or indifferent. Maybe they lack confidence.
“This is something we talk about on our business coaching courses,” Dan said. “The first rule of coaching is ‘be curious’.
“Many people come on our courses not knowing how to be curious. They are not naturally good at asking questions - maybe because of a lack of confidence or fear they might get into something they know little about.
“Learning how to ask good questions at the right time is the key to being curious.
“And my biggest tip is to ask ‘what’ questions not ‘why’ ones.
“’What’ questions evoke more information. They say to someone you care, are interested and want to listen.
“Whereas ‘why’ questions are judgmental – ‘why did you do that?’
“They put people on the back foot and make them immediately defensive.”
Dan says that good starter questions are ‘what’s on your mind?’ and ‘what is most challenging for you now?’
And an excellent follow-up is ‘and what else?’
“Most of the time, people will give a certain amount of information, and it is not the whole story,” Dan said.
“Asking ‘and what else?’ encourages them to speak freely. And it reinforces the idea you are interested.
“It is also a simple question to bring in if you are unsure what to ask next.”
If you still feel unsure about curiosity, you could take some inspiration from children.
Dan said: “My son is at the age where he asks ‘why’ about everything. Part of that may be to annoy me.
“But it is mainly because he is curious and wants to know stuff. There are things he hasn’t seen yet in his life.
“So, I think we can learn about curiosity from children. When we are adults, we often have our assumptions, which can be incorrect. Staying curious gives us more insight. And it is more enjoyable.”
The point about assumptions is a pivotal one. We all make assumptions every day, and they can be harmless. For example, you might assume that you need to leave a little earlier for work tomorrow because there are roadworks, and the traffic might be heavy.
But in the workplace, assumptions can hinder teams.
“In business coaching, we talk about removing assumptions,” Dan said.
“Assumptions limit what a team can achieve. We go into something with pre-conceived ideas, we think we know the answer. But often, we don’t.
“We might be a leader, but there are other people with great knowledge. So, tap into that as much as you can.
“Let’s say you have a project to work on, and you think one of your team members might be more suited than the other because they have worked on something similar before.
“If you are curious and ask questions, you may find that the other team member is passionate about that area of work and could be better suited to the project.”
Dan spoke earlier about the importance of asking inquisitive questions at the right time. So, when is the right time?
“One of the pitfalls of being more curious is that it can be time-consuming because you are opening up a conversation,” Dan said.
“If you are in the middle of managing a crisis, that might not be the right time to be curious. But if you’ve got a bit more time, go for it.
“However, you also need to know how far you should push it. Some people will be more private and won’t like sharing personal details in the workplace. They may want to keep their weekends to themselves.
“You have to respect that if someone is closing down the conversation, you should move it on to something else.
“Be curious about what motivates them in the workplace rather than the personal side of things.
“The more you practice being curious, the better you will develop this understanding.”
But curiosity doesn’t just come from the questions we ask. Leaders also need to listen with curiosity.
This means focusing on what is said. What isn’t said. And not listening with the intent to reply.
Dan said: “We are often asked on our business coaching courses if we have a bank of questions. We do.
“But the crucial thing is to ask a question and listen. When you listen and have curiosity at the forefront of your mind, the next question will come anyway.
“And listening is something we all need to work at as often we ask a question because we want to say something or get our point across.
“For example, someone might ask you what you did at the weekend. And they might not be interested in what you did – they want to tell you what they did on the weekend.
“That’s not being curious. Being curious is ‘what did you do on the weekend?’ and then ‘that sounds interesting, ‘tell me more about that’, ‘how did that happen?’, ‘where did you get the tickets from?’
“You need to stay in the moment and be present in the conversation.”
There is another quote from Ted Lasso that I love and links in neatly with this subject.
Ted said: “You could fill two internets with what I don’t know about football.”
It is a quote that again shows why leaders should be curious. But it also highlights the importance of vulnerability and admitting mistakes, knowledge gaps and limitations.
Dan said: “I remember Eddie Jones, the former England rugby coach, saying he was often in a room with other great coaches from other sports, and he would go in with the attitude of ‘I know the least in this room’.
“That’s not a negative – it is a curious mindset. Believing there are others in the room who can feed your knowledge is a powerful mindset to have.
“It is also good to show a bit of vulnerability. Asking questions and being curious shows that you don’t know everything.
“It makes you human rather than ‘the manager’.
The BCF Group has been helping organisations develop their talent, inspire their people and overcome obstacles and challenges for the past 25 years.
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