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Curiosity & Engagement

While there are many recognised elements to employee engagement including leadership, culture, opportunities for advancement etc. and, that tapped into Discretionary Effort is one of the best measures of engagement, I'd like to propose a fresh approach.


At its most granular, we could say engagement reflects how "present" people are at that moment. And, for this article, I'd like to suggest being present is simply the absence of distraction. Like focus, it's not so much something you do but rather the ability keep your mind here, now – free of distraction. Some call it being in flow or the zone.

When people are truly present, they're not worrying about last week's pay, why Bob's a jerk or comparing this sunset to the one they saw in Greece three years ago. In the moment (watching a sunset for example), comparing it or photographing it, would be signs that you're no longer present and a step down in your enjoyment of the moment.

Mindfulness, a good joke, gratitude, a stubbed toe, or even extreme danger can all help bring us to the present. So too can curiosity!

So, let's have a quick look at how curiosity might improve engagement and why many traditional approaches to management and leadership fail to engage as well as they could.

Telling people what to do or how to do it might appear to be fast but, arguably, is the least effective way to engage. One-way telling puts the onus on the speaker to do all the hard work. And no matter how good a job you might think you're doing, it's also possible that some of those rapturous audience expressions you're feeding off are actually people dreaming of how they'll spend their lottery winnings.

You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink.

But what if you made it thirsty first?

Educators and managers have tried to overcome this low-level engagement and encourage people to pay attention and listen with well-intentioned but rather clumsy tools like threatening exams, praise or other "carrots and sticks".

At Curiousmind, however, we would argue that the most leveraged form of engagement is by asking questions and arousing curiosity. When we pose a question, we activate several neurological triggers in the audience:


  1. We're programmed from very young (it may even be instinctive) to respond to a question. The moment we detect a question, we shift from passive observers to active participants as our brains engage in finding an appropriate answer.

  2. When our questions are curious and[1] well designed, we can engage people's curiosity, inviting them to look deeper, to analyse or even reflect on their current assumptions on the issue.

  3. We can facilitate Discoveries, where the audience feel like they have found their own solutions to a problem.


These Discoveries (ah-ha moments) are an influencers' best moments because we are more likely to “own” ideas we’ve generated.

"Computers are useless. They can only give you answers." Picasso

There is one more level where we can know with absolute confidence that our audience is deeply engaged. Sometimes it's just more comfortable or more practical to tell people what's required. In these instances, the way to ensure they listen to every word is by having them see your telling as an answer (with the exact same content)! When people pose genuine questions, they've demonstrated engagement and primed themselves to listen.

Perhaps you’ve wondered about those bored, disengaged students/employees (partners) as you tell (teach, instruct or explain) them what to do. While your topic and presentation style will help with engagement it might be worth asking yourself the following., How would you feel being forced to sit obediently and listen to answers to questions you hadn't asked? In a following blog, we'll discuss how to cultivate a culture of curiosity (at home, school, or work) where everyone engages. Where forming and asking questions is seen as more valuable than answers and where learning is both the goal and the journey.

[1] Contrary to popular thought, there are stupid (incurious) questions. Usually poorly designed they create defensiveness or direct or limit peoples thinking. “Whose fault is it?” is an example. Read our blog on Curious Questioning.