Not too long ago, I read about a fascinating study involving orangutans. It turns out that orangutans in captivity demonstrate far more curiosity than orangutans in the wild. Why? The proposed theory is that the captive orangutans are living in a safe environment and so don’t have to focus on the threats inherent to life in the wild. Safety enables the curiosity.
Even when there’s no physical danger (and sometimes there is), workplaces are often unsafe. The threats may be to one’s status, relationships, emotional well-being, access to opportunities or even job security. In response, staff behave in ways calculated to protect themselves rather than creatively engage with their work. They will not speak up, ask questions or take a position.
Bosses have significant formal control over our work lives and can wield that power in ways that lead us to feel unsafe. In a non supportive or competitive environment, we may not feel that our peers have our best interests at heart. Our peers can make us unsafe, particularly in environments that feel competitive. Even our staff can make us feel threatened, particularly if we’re new managers. They may conspire against us, break our confidences, talk about us behind our backs, scrutinize our eery action or even make it obvious that they don’t like us. In each of these instances they are using informal power to make us feel unsafe. In any of these cases, when our assumption is that danger may be present, even innocuous occurrences can set us off.
Feeling unsafe often leads to an instinctive flight, freeze or fight response. Defensiveness or hostility, silence or shouting. And more often than not, when one person is acting like they feel unsafe, the other will do so as well.
The good news is that we are not orangutans. Our curiosity isn’t necessarily limited by our environment. In fact, our curiosity can shape our environment. When we choose to be curious, we make our environment more safer, both for ourselves and for others. If we’re the initiator, our words do not lead the other person to feel unsafe. When we’re threatened, responding with curiosity can profoundly change the dynamic.
How does this work? Our brains have a tough time being in that fight, flight, freeze mode while at the same time remaining curious. So when we force ourselves to be curious, we keep that instinctive response at bay. Few of us can execute a parallel response where we can engage and learn on the one hand and fight, freeze or fly on the other. We have to got with one or the other. When we decide to be curious, we choose to learn from the situation rather than simply to protect ourselves and our feelings.
For each of us there will be different types of situations where this is harder or easier—we all have different buttons that others get to press. But whenever we’re able to ask, “Why are you pressing that button?” most likely we won’t be in flight, freeze or fight modes—at least until we hear the answer.
Managers and leaders can be trained to respond to perceived threats with curiosity. In doing so, they promote the overall safety of the workplace, they learn useful information for the future, and they model for their team the good things that can happen when they choose curiosity.