Curiosity – do you use data; or does data use you?

Perhaps Rudyard Kipling summed up the notion of curiosity most succinctly when he wrote:

“I had six honest serving men. They taught me all I knew. Their names were: Where, What, When, Why, How and Who.”

Human beings have a drive – there’s some debate as to whether it’s an emotion or an  instinct, so I’ll stick with drive – to be ‘curious’ about our world; to wonder what it’s all about; to have a thirst for knowledge and understanding which goes beyond what we need to survive today, but is undoubtedly required to enable us to survive tomorrow.

In this article I want to try to understand what we mean by curiosity; explore the elements of curiosity; and finally attempt to understand the role of ‘intelligent leadership’ in supporting and enabling a ‘data-curious’ organisation.

Going back to medieval times curious people were regarded with great suspicion. Augustine, the early medieval theologian and philosopher, viewed curiosity as “vain inquisitiveness, dignified by the title that knowledge is science” and suggested that curious people “crave spectacle and a desire to be seen”.  People were supposed to know their place before god, and show humility rather than commit “the sin of pride that seeks to know things that are best left unknown”.

It’s a sad indictment on some schools that there seems exists a similar suspicion about those who show any curiosity or desire to better understand their world. Not as a consequence of any religious conviction but a suspicion that there must be some ulterior motive at work for anyone to seek to do anymore than is required to get the job done.

Yet curiosity has been the main impetus behind scientific discovery for centuries and millennia. A fact recognised by no less a person than Albert Einstein, who avowed, “Curiosity is more important than knowledge”.  Certainly the academic literature in this area would appear to confirm that there is a fundamental connection between curiosity, knowledge and discovery. With Lowenstein suggesting that, “Knowledge appears to prime the pump of curiosity”.

It is this fascinating connection between knowledge and curiosity that is at the heart of human development where – the more we know, the more we realise what we don’t know.

So how does curiosity manifest itself in modern organisations?

Does the phrase “data driven” mean anything to you? It’s this notion that an organisation must take account of the data when making decisions – particularly about the performance of the organisation or individuals.  However, the very phrase ‘data-driven’ gives the allusion of data being in the ‘driving seat’, where there exists a metrics powered approach to decision making, with the human element removed.

There is a real danger that a blind commitment to becoming  ‘data-led’ organisations leads us to make decisions that lack any reference to values, ethics, or reference to our acquired experience – or what we might better call human wisdom.

In this regard, there are two striking questions posed by T.S.Elliot, in his play The Rock, “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information? Unknown to Elliot he presaged the identification of what is alternatively known as the ‘wisdom hierarchy’ or ‘knowledge pyramid’. This purports to represent the relationship between Data (raw facts) at the bottom of the pyramid; to Information (meaningful data); to Knowledge (understanding of information); to Wisdom (judgement using reference to values and experience) at the top of the pyramid.

Rather than seeing organisations as being ‘data-driven’ we should, then, instead, see them as being “values driven’ where we ‘use data’, as opposed to ‘data using us’.

Yet at the other end of the spectrum there are those who have neither the inclination to look at data – nor the curiosity to better understand their practice or the world around them.

As ever, there is a balance to be struck, but the key ingredient in making an organisation effective lies with the behaviour of the leaders.

For it is the role of leaders to model ‘curiosity’ and to ‘carry’ the value system against which data is generated, interpreted and understood.

Perhaps Charles Handy captured this most eloquently when he identified curiosity as being one of the key ingredients of ‘intelligent leadership’.

For ‘intelligent leadership’ appears to be a key element in successful organisations, where the leader promotes and exemplifies a ‘curiosity-driven’ culture, whereby the seeking of answers is part of a longer term process of generating knowledge to become a school  that is continually learning, adapting and improving.

Accordingly, regardless of the amount of ‘data’ generated, the masses of ‘information’ accumulated, and the associated ‘knowledge’ that is gained – it is the application of wisdom that will differentiate between the long-term success and failure of ‘curiosity-driven’ schools.

An eye for an eye – isn’t the best way to lead

I used to work with a headteacher who constantly bemoaned the fact that their teachers “Wouldn’t know what innovation was if they bumped into it in the street”. The ironic thing about this was that this was someone who would harangue any individual who made the slightest mistake.  Was it any wonder that people learned to keep their heads down and stayed within their ‘comfort zone’? I genuinely felt sorry for the people who worked in that school.

Yet leaders are under immense pressure these days to deliver improved outcomes with fewer and fewer resources. The only solution to this challenge is to find innovative ways of working. For innovation to take place people need to operate within a culture where they have the confidence and necessary ‘space’ to take risks. This ‘space for innovation’ requires leaders to establish a culture of forgiveness. In the course of this essay I intend to define forgiveness; explore why leaders find it difficult to forgive; explain why and how forgiveness can enhance an organisation; and, finally conclude by arguing that forgiveness is a fundamental leadership virtue, which can have a dramatic impact upon the well-being of the leaders and staff, and, in so doing, the effectiveness of the entire organisation.

The dictionary definition of forgiveness is “To grant free pardon and to give up all claim on account of an offense or debt”. Forgiveness further relates to renunciation or cessation of resentment, indignation or anger due to a perceived offense, disagreement or mistake.

It is this latter cause, the notion of forgiving a mistake, which carries with it the most challenging element for modern leaders who are committed to creating a ‘mistake free’, ‘results driven’, ‘outcome focused’, ‘high performing’ environment.

Yet when leaders establish boundaries where employees know that they will not be forgiven if they make a mistake, then the outcome is quite the opposite from what is intended. For what is apparent from current research is that if people feel that they will not be forgiven for making mistakes, they will tend to operate well within those boundaries – even if the leader only implies these boundaries.

In the modern workplace, with ever-reducing budgets, greater organisational scrutiny, public accountability, and plummeting numbers of people to do ever-increasing amounts of work, the pressure to closely manage the performance of employees has never been greater.

This leads many managers towards a form of behaviour that actually has a ‘diminishing’ impact upon their employees, but also upon themselves, and organisational effectiveness. The leadership behaviour I am referring to is one that is intolerant of mistakes, and characterised by punishment and retribution.

Traditional justice has often been based upon the law of retribution, i.e. and eye for an eye. Mahatama Ghandi’s response to this notion of equivalency was to observe that “An eye – for an eye – for an eye…..ends in making everybody blind”.

Employees who are forgiven for mistakes, and who work in a forgiving culture are much more likely to be creative, take appropriate risks, and learn and grow their own leadership capabilities. For forgiveness helps people to have a more positive outlook on the future and much less likely to hide mistakes or transgressions.

An organisation that promotes forgiveness will be engaged in positive and constructive behaviour, which eventually increases the effectiveness of the organisation. Yet a culture of forgiveness should not be taken to mean a ‘free for all’, ‘do as you feel’ approach to work, nor does it imply that everything can be forgiven, e.g. sexual harassment.

Modern organisations are complex places with inter-relationships and team-based working creating a combustible environment for conflict and dispute, especially when fuelled by the budgetary challenges facing organisations. Where a leader cannot forgive and pardon a transgression, then the conflict is left unresolved and creates a drag on the organisation. In turn, this revenge behaviour from the leader sucks the confidence and vibrancy out of any organisation.

At a time when many organisations are attempting to reduce the levels of stress, a simple step might be to set about creating a culture of forgiveness where it becomes possible to use mistakes, faults, and breakdowns as useful learning opportunities for all involved. Leaders have the power to profoundly influence this culture within an organisation through the promotion of a forgiving culture – perhaps more so than any other feature of their leadership behaviour. Where this culture of restitution exists in place of one of revenge it can overcome any feelings of bitterness and hate, the fertile conditions for stress, and enable people to make an extra effort – with all the positive consequences that this can have upon the bottom-line. Such a culture enables authentic, courageous and open conversations – where both the leader and the employee understand that forgiveness can be a two-way process.

It’s this final element that is of great significance in the current stress-inducing environment, i.e. the welfare of the leaders themselves. Once again we find through research that the very act of forgiveness has a positive effect upon the well being of the leader. Instead of nursing grievances and grudges they can move on and focus upon facilitating excellence and improvement – the job that they are paid to do.

Far from ‘forgiveness’ being a sign of leadership weakness or timidity then, it is, in actual fact, a virtue and a real indication of fortitude and self-confidence. Never has it been more important for leaders to demonstrate forgiveness and create the necessary ‘space for innovation’ for the kind of fundamental changes that are necessary to successfully address our current challenges.

I’ll leave the last words with Nelson Mandela, perhaps the greatest exponent of forgiveness in modern times:

“Forgiveness liberates the soul; it removes fear, that’s why it’s such a powerful weapon.”