Contempt vs Curiosity at Work

I believe there are moments that happen every day in organisations, moments that dramatically undermine a company’s success, but are hardly noticed. 

That moment is when innovation and creativity is crushed beneath contempt, rather than fertilised by curiosity. Contempt is the hidden killer of success and yet we’re all guilty.

An example

I was attending a course, and there was a comment made which I felt deserved to be challenged. A couple of people dismissed my contribution, on account of my inexperience in the area. 

So the conversation stopped and the moment for exploring another perspective was lost.

That’s what the weight of contempt can do.

In my company, what would have happened is that someone would have been curious about why a person thought differently. There probably would have been a Clean Language question asked such as, “What kind of […] do you mean?” or “Is there anything else about […]?” 

If that had happened over the weekend course, I suspect we would have found out something really interesting. Instead I got contempt – you can bet I didn’t make any other comments after that!

The subtext was that conventional wisdom was correct and my comments were from a place of inexperience.

In this particular situation, I know for certain that a curious conversation would have been very interesting, because they were discussing a problem which has been solved elsewhere. 

This is the problem

Companies, and indeed industries are also full of such “wisdoms” which are past their sell-by date. 

The problem is that conventional wisdom never gets challenged. Instead of being curious about alternatives, we fall into contempt of the messenger who we instinctively decide must be wrong. 

I appreciate this isn’t the most surprising insight in the world. My point is even though we know this, it still happens. And there’s plenty of people trying to figure out how to fix it, with varying degrees of success. 

I think the underlying issue is we haven’t had a way of respectfully enquiring of each other. And I think I’ve managed to create a culture which is curious. 

A Curious Culture

In my company, we deliberately create a culture of curiosity – we know it’s good for business!

Contempt happens when someone gets to a place of “I’m OK and you’re not” which is a very easy place to be when someone is different from you. It also happens when someone is not willing to be questioned or to update their view on something – the classic trap of an expert. 

Conversely, curiosity in our company has everyone prepared to be challenged and to change their minds when they become aware of another perspective. 

Everybody is given a free pass to speak up and challenge anybody else in the company – and that includes me. There are no sacred cows in the office. It is crucial that if I say, “That’s bollocks!”, people are able to ask me more about that. For example, “What kind of bollocks?” 

Those Clean questions are always taken as they are meant – from a place of curious respect. Often the silliest starting questions produce the most interesting results. To the extent it has become a bit of a joke, albeit one that we’re often surprised with the results of.

Creating a culture of curiosity

  • Pick the right people: We recruit people who care enough to be curious, including about their own stuff. Not everyone is prepared to be curious; some people are much happier just looking for reinforcement of their current views. Fortunately, it is fairly easy to ascertain someone’s level of curiosity in an interview. 
  • Edit the organisation: We are prepared to remove cynics and politicians. We call each other out on being contemptuous. Continuous contempt would be a firing offence. Politicians and prima donnas find this kind of environment extremely uncomfortable and generally leave of their own accord.
  • Clean Language: We trained everybody in Clean Language. Clean Language is a set of simple and neutral questions that reflect back only the other person’s words. These questions invite a person to pay even more attention to their experience so as to generate new insights, ideas and solutions. It is key enabler of Curiosity. Clean inherently causes communication to be respectful. You can’t ask a loaded question, you can’t belittle people. That makes Clean questions very easy to respond to regardless of the sensitivity of the topic. Clean also gives people a voice outside of their area of expertise. You don’t have to be an accountant to ask Clean questions about finance matters, to shine a light on something that doesn’t seem quite right.
  • Leadership: The company’s leadership has to be prepared to publicly demonstrate and support curiosity. Anyone can question anyone about anything as long as it is done Cleanly.


So what? How have we benefitted?

  • We are a successful small team with a revenue per employee that is double the industry average.
  • Being curious cultivates creativity and collaboration – we use everybody’s brains better and as a result, we’re quicker and leaner.
  • There’s also greater employee buy-in when there are new, out-of-the-box ideas.

Lots of major shifts have emerged for us through a culture of curiosity. Not top-down, but bottom up innovation with real impact on our profitability.

A crisis of contempt

We hear from the government that there’s a productivity crisis in the UK. 

I’d say there’s a contempt crisis – there’s plenty of opportunity for improvement in every company, but we can’t bring ourselves to be curious enough to investigate them. It is much more comfortable to judge each other. 

Clean Language has been at the heart of helping us move in the direction of a curious culture. 

BTW Caitlin Walker’s book “From Contempt to Curiosity” covers this and much more, well worth a read. 

Jacqueline Ann Surin collaborated on this blog posting.

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