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Leadership

The Power of Psychological Safety

How leaders who embrace curiosity empower followers

"The capacity to be puzzled is the premise of all creation, be it in art or in science."

—Erich Fromm

Curiosity is a powerful driver of human behavior, necessary for survival from an evolutionary point of view, and considered to be one of the core motivational systems baked into the brain. According to work by neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp (Davis & Montag, 2019), the “SEEKING” system, alongside CARE, PLAY, LUST, FEAR, SADNESS and ANGER, is a primary emotion, critical for meeting basic needs (e.g. looking for sources of food and shelter) as well as for more sophisticated activities in the social and personal world (e.g. making new connections, being open to novel ideas, enabling personal growth).

Curiosity as a Basic Instinct

From a clinical point of view, the SEEKING system has been implicated in depression (Coenen, Schlaepfer & Bonn, 2012). When our capacity to explore, seek solutions, learn new things, and generally seek unfamiliar territory is hampered, we may be not only predisposed to becoming depressed but might have more difficulty emerging from depression.

Nothing puts a damper on curiosity like learned helplessness—a factor shown to be core in animal models of depression. For example, in classic if troubling research (Seligman, 1972), dogs forced to endure shocks learn to stop looking for a way to escape from pain. Even when there is an open door, such conditioning keeps them from getting up and walking out.

The Most Valuable Leadership Trait You Can Have?

In the workplace, exploratory behavior is critical for success, in spite of admonitions that "curiosity killed the cat". In dynamic environments, businesses shift between innovation and replication, both strategies requiring investigation. (Axelrod & Cohen, 2001). For teams, searching for solutions creates a competitive edge, whether the solutions are innovative approaches to longstanding problems or adaptations of existing solutions from competitors and adjacent industries.

Exploratory behavior, however, requires that people feel safe. When people don't feel safe psychologically, they stay silent; when employees speak up and are met with disinterest by leaders, they shut down. Often, they eventually seek employment elsewhere.

Along these lines, as Thompson and Klotz note in a recent study of leadership curiosity and follower voice, reported in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Process (2022), curiosity has been described as “the most valuable leadership trait you can have”, central to transformative processes, visionary imagination, and lifelong growth.

Defining curiosity as “the desire to know, to see, or to experience that motivates exploratory behavior, information seeking and learning”, they report many benefits associated with employee curiosity in the workplace: improved problem solving, enhanced learning, greater personal growth, reduced burnout with increased engagement, and more positive ratings of tasks and performance. However, less attention has been paid to how leadership curiosity itself may impact employees.

Study authors hypothesize that leadership curiosity, coupled with overall competence, would be beneficial in a variety of ways, from building trust and encouraging healthy risk-taking, to encouraging creativity by providing positive role modelling, to showing empathy and fostering psychological safety, ultimately increasing employee empowerment and encouraging followers to speak up, to have a voice. Employees who feel safe are more likely to take risks in speaking up, which is positive for both individual and team performance.

They further speculate that curiosity has greater impact coming from male than female leaders, given gender norms and unfamiliarity. On average, followers expect openness and curiosity from women; when men display such traits, it is a “positive violation”, conferring a “community bonus”. Indeed, in another study, researchers found that when female public speakers broke stereotype and used humor effectively in public presentations, they were perceived as possessing greater status and competence (Miron-Spektor, Bear & Eliav, 2022).

Leader Curiosity, Psychological Safety, and Follower Empowerment

In order to study the impact of leader curiosity on follower voice, Thompson and Klotz surveyed teams in four different work settings in the US, including an educational consulting firm, two healthcare organizations, and a financial services organization, to include a diverse sample of leader-follower dyads. They collected data at three points over a 14-week period, starting with follower reports of leader curiosity at Time 1, follower reported psychological safety at Time 2, and finally, at Time 3, leader ratings of follower voice.

Across all four samples, they found that leader curiosity was associated with follower psychological safety. Follower voice was associated with leader curiosity, with psychological safety a significant mediating factor between follower voice and leader curiosity. They found that the effect of psychological safety in enhancing follower voice was stronger with male leaders.

Analyses also indicated that psychological safety was not the only variable connecting leader curiosity with follower voice. Future research to determine what other factors are at play might focus on modeling. Followers are likely to emulate behaviors they see in leaders, copying both good and bad habits. Employees with curious leaders are more likely themselves to be curious, leading to more ideas and more to share when opinions are solicited. Fostering openness to new experience, a key personality trait in gifted individuals, is likely to enhance team performance.

Implications of Curiosity for the Workplace, and Beyond

The findings of this study pinpoint the role of leader curiosity on follower voice across diverse professional settings. Having a voice, feeling empowered, and speaking one’s mind when it matters are highly desirable factors in employees.

The research highlights the key role of psychological safety in generative risk-taking, the crucial value of competent curiosity in the workplace, and the power of leadership behavior to truly set the tone for the whole organization. Although managers often recognize that employees make the best contributions when they feel safe and valued, they may actually struggle to create such an environment, due to feelings of fear, mistrust, and unsafety.

In addition, the work highlights the role expectations around gendered behavior play in influencing follower responsiveness. Curiosity was more powerful when displayed by male leaders, from whom openness and empathy are relatively unexpected, in contrast with female leaders. The same gendered expectations made humor more powerful coming from female speakers. We are all subject to unconscious bias, and research like this reveals exactly how it plays out in real-world situations.

Beyond professional settings, curiosity and openness have been found to be powerful for building healthy, satisfying relationships. Listening and being receptive, creating a space for the other person to have a voice and develop their own sense of autonomy, are essential in all relationships. From romantic relationships to friendship and parent-child communications, curiosity is a ingredient we cannot live without—as is the capacity to live with doubt and uncertainty, without needing to make things make sense too soon, called "negative capability" by the poet John Keats.

It is worth noting, however, that while curiosity begets psychological safety, it is not the only factor. Overall competence, appropriate structure and expectation management, modeling desirable behavior, and effective communication—all are required.

References

Axelrod Robert & Cohen Michael D. (2000). Harnessing Complexity: Organizational Implications of a Scientific Frontier. Basic Books, New York: NY.

Coenen, Volker & Schlaepfer, Thomas & Bonn, Germany. (2012). Panksepp’s SEEKING System Concepts and Their Implications for the Treatment of Depression with Deep-Brain Stimulation. Neuropsychoanalysis. 14. 10.1080/15294145.2012.10773685.

Davis Kenneth L., Montag Christian. Selected Principles of Pankseppian Affective Neuroscience. Frontiers in Neuroscience, Vol. 12, 2019, https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnins.2018.01025.

Ella Miron-Spektor, Dr. Julia Bear, and Dr. Emuna Eliav, 0: Think Funny, Think Female: The Benefits of Humor for Women’s Influence in the Digital Age. AMD, 0, https://doi.org/10.5465/amd.2021.0112.

Seligman ME (1972). "Learned helplessness". Annual Review of Medicine. 23 (1): 407–412. doi:10.1146/annurev.me.23.020172.002203.

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