Remember the ROI of Curiosity

Previously, Dan wrote on the current internal culture dynamics that we have observed across firms, specifically on the effort and engagement required, from one Baby Boomer to another. Today, I continue the conversation with the first of two invitations to people my age and career stage. 


I often wonder why the Baby Boomers smear paint on us Millennials for being “the Trophy Generation.” Of course kindergarden-me loved getting trophies. But I didn’t ask for them or buy them. What’s up with this older generation blaming us, when they bought the trophies in the first place? 


There is deep frustration between generations in many places of employment. In return for quality work, employees in my generation (and younger) want a shifting set of intangible workplace attributes, including more inclusive practices. It often seems like the older generations running our organizations are (1) slow to hear and believe that the intangible qualities employees seek in a workplace are in fact evolving, and (2) slow to act on those petitions. Time passes and we wait for observable progress such as policy changes, more equitable hiring practices that yield results, and removal of toxic employees. 


While we wait, we fill the void. The longer silence and avoidance persist in the workplace, the more stories we assume and tell about the leaders who are not responding to our petitions. This is a common human response, but it is not productive. Knowing that my generation is already impressively focused on advocacy, my invitation in this situation that we face is two-fold. Today I’ll explore the first step.


Stay curious. 


Increasingly our generation and the one behind us is putting forth a compelling vision of how a workplace could be for a more diverse set of people. The wait can be frustrating to the point of disillusionment. While we learn and advocate and initiate and suggest, I invite us to find ways to keep ourselves curious.


A friend and I were recently looking at the website of an innovative venture capital firm. Based on the website, it was unclear how gender inclusive the firm was, specifically of people who identify as non-binary. I saw disappointment move across her face as she assumed a disappointing current reality: ignorance, apathy, maybe even mindsets built on top of resistance or hostility. We could have disengaged, or gone in ready to tell them what they should already know.


Instead, we spotted our assumption and planned to ask them in our meeting: “We’d like to be aligned with you in how you interact with current and potential founders. Could you share how you encourage gender inclusion, especially of people who identify as non-binary?” 


What advantage comes through this curiosity? 


We are already clear about where we want to go. Our curiosity, and our openness to asking and hearing the answer to our question, will add to our understanding of reality. In short, we’ll get more data. We will more accurately see the gap between our vision and current reality, feel the tension between the two, and begin the push-pull of progress from the right starting point. 


By beginning with a question, ideally we can learn where they are and create from there. People support what they help to create. Sharing their current thinking and hearing ours could be a launching point on a shared journey.


But who knows what response we will hear. It is possible that they will be defensive, which is unnecessary; after all, they have the power in this situation (see Dan’s post on this topic here). The external return on curiosity varies; conversations are still mutual endeavors. The internal return on curiosity is limitless. Through curiosity we give ourselves a tremendous advantage in learning, adapting, and observing, whether those around us follow suit or not. 


Stay curious. Ask open-ended questions. And let your observations guide the way you seek change as you…  


Lead with your best self.

  • I think it’s safe to say that only the one percenters would know what “ROI” means, without resorting to Google.

    • Bill,
      I think I get your underlying point, but I am curious and not sure! Is your objection about the acronym or the concept? What was it that got you? And what is the importance of your conclusion? Advice to us as writer/editors? Advice to us as elites? Tell us more, please.
      As to your “safe to say,” I’m not sure that is right. What are you seeing? In a start-up economy (yay) or a gig economy (yays and boos) an awful lot of people I meet, e.g., my Lyft driver last week, totally understand ROI (unless, again, you mean the acronym).
      You have been teaching undergrads and grads for 30+ years at Mizzou, what is YOUR take? Either on what we as Boomers needs to do with the gaps and conflicts, or how you think we can understand and support (and appropriately) challenge the younger gens???

    • Oh gosh I love this – it could be a whole other post. Google is exactly where I learned what ROI means, after reading it somewhere else! And so much more, but I wonder to what extent my comfort learning that way is very ‘of my generation.’

  • I love the use of “curiosity” to frame your questions. In my experience, leading with questions is a great approach to engagement but the challenge for many has always been walking the line between “learning” questions and “judging” ones. It is very easy (in your example for example) to slip into judgment, especially in any follow-up questions. So much of it is in the tone and even body language of the asker. That’s when defenses on the other side really go up and the approach backfires. Mentally reminding yourself that the purpose is learning helps to manage that and allow for true curiosity to prevail.

    • Marilyn,
      I could not agree more. Your distinction “learning” vs. “judging” (or proving you’re right) is huge. And so is tone!
      Thanks for your contribution!
      P.S. Wished we had had more chances to collaborate. You taught me a lot back in the day!

  • My experience with Millennials is that they are often not open to questions about their planning. They take it as an insult, saying the older person does not trust them to do the job right. Communication is different with Millennials, my experience is they do not answer their phone calls. They want to text one question and get one answer, They stay away from conversations.

    • And how do we – the boomer gens – relate to this, Mark? How do we help them to not “take it as an insult” when we – on our best days – exercise the kind of curiosity that Laura is urging on her generation?
      (It’s fascinating to me that the first 3 comments are from my boomer peers. We’ll have to look at our outreach to see if we can better engage the younger gens.)

    • Hmm perhaps there is overlap in Marilyn’s insight and this dilemma you’ve faced: how to ask questions about planning that are based in learning and support, not judgment. And – more relevant in your description of the scenario – how can you break the pattern of the receiver assuming that a question comes from judgment, when it really does come from a desire to support? This does seem like a face-to-face reset, or at least over Zoom, for you to provide clarity and check for shared understanding. So much of that supportive tone can be lost in writing, even in an email.
      (Caveat: In my professional roles, the communication norms have not allowed for texting.)

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