Can We Embed Curiosity in Corporate Culture?

I had the incredible good fortune to be one of 850 people from around the world in late June who participated in the World Positive Education Accelerator. This gathering intended to take a major step in the direction of acting at the scale of the whole—with a focus on spotting and fanning the best current efforts and emerging innovations in the field of positive education (i.e., education fueled by the principles and evidence-based learnings of positive psychology and human flourishing).

Dr. Nadya Zhexembayeva, moderator of the WPEA summit, is a world-recognized chief reinvention officer. Among many mind-stretching points in her remarks was the assertion that business lifecycles are so compressed today that reinvention is required every 7 ½ years. Contrast this with the mid-20th century, where she noted that it was not only possible but likely that you could work your entire 40-year career without seeing a single major transformation. Business lifecycles were moving that slowly as to require reinvention about every 75 years. By the end of the 20th century, that figure had dropped to about every 15 years. Now, not even fully through our second decade of the 21st century, we’re experiencing a need for business reinvention in 7+ years.

No wonder we’re all tired.

In an environment of this level of constant and swift change, an organization’s ability to adapt is paramount. Call it what you will—imagination, ideation, improvisation, adaptation—this learned ability to culturally adapt is a product of curiosity and an unapologetic resolve to focus on what’s creating lift, what’s infusing life into the organization. These are the elements to study and magnify, for they hold the keys to our ability to reinvent.

Our headlong pace into this ever-shortening business cycle environment means everyone in the organization has to become more adept at, and comfortable with, improvisation. Leaders should attend closely to this agenda. Some change expertsi suggest we need to strengthen four improvisational capacity muscles:

  1. Affirming – focusing on the best of what is and the possibilities that affords;
  2. Expanding – using bold vision to stretch everyone’s thinking to new margins;
  3. Generating – establishing systems that provide feedback and insight to performance;
  4. Collaborating – welcoming diverse perspectives and fostering joint participation.

Embedding this improvisational capacity into your team or organization begins with full recognition of the fundamental power of conversation as the foundation of everything we do and create together in organizations. Stavros and Torres make clear this power when they say, “The nature of our conversations determines our well-being and our capacity to thrive.”ii

So how can a leader leverage every conversation to head down this path without some big established initiative or change agenda? Here’s some suggestions:

  1. Be aware of your own tone and tenor – your words get amplified and mirrored.
  2. Focus on (or reframe to) the positive – what’s working and why; what gives this life?
  3. Intentionally ask generative questions – those that foster energizing new images and metaphors, information, knowledge, and possibility.
  4. Invite dialogue with and among all stakeholders – recognizing that nobody owns the future we’re co-creating together.
  5. Dream together and try stuff quickly – prototype solutions and keep learning.

As with anything else in organizational life, there’s no panacea. Yet you need not be afraid to wade into the notion of positively impacting the culture around you. The first shift to make is yours: be genuinely curious about the best of what exists currently (even if that seems infinitely small at this moment!). From that posture, then inquire more deeply about that strength or asset. Note the conditions around it. Understand the contributing factors. Clarify your sense of awareness about those moments. Then ask, “what might be possible if these seemingly fleeting moments of pure strength could become more pervasive….then what would be possible?”

The more you can practice this as an individual leader, the more likely you will contribute to a culture of greater adaptation. Take this tack in your routine meetings by helping your colleagues reframe their frustrations and negatives into an exploration of what you all want more of. Expect to be a bit of an oddball at the beginning, as many organizational cultures are infused with a head down, get-er-done, running fast production pace that breeds a defensive employee survival attitude of separation or, worse, skepticism and judgement.

Unchecked, a widespread corrosive skepticism can infect even the best organization, becoming a fire-breathing dragon that eats most change agents for lunch. The barriers are real, as I’m sure you’ll agree. In his seminal work on experiential learning, David Kolb notes, “The greatest challenge to the development of knowledge is the comfort of dogmatism…or even the shadow dogmatism of utter skepticism (for to be utterly skeptical is to dogmatically affirm that nothing can be known”iii (italics added for emphasis).

To combat the potential for this pervasive skepticism and deficit thinking, therefore, a leader has to intentionally attempt to influence culture. Modeling the routine use of powerful and probing questions designed to help others illuminate the best in their shared experiences is a key step. Like any behavior that you want to stick, you’ll have to stay with it. You don’t have to deny or deflect challenges and bad news but you can reframe it in such a way that it invites more curiosity by colleagues—each of you looking to better understand the best of what is at this very moment and, buoyed by that, imagining what might be possible if that “best” were amplified.

In my experience, the healthiest and most successful cultures are those where curiosity is a widely shared value on display daily, at every level of the organization. Growing your individual and shared competence to be affirmative, expansive, collaborative, and generative will build your improvisational muscle.

With business lifecycles as short as they are, working to embed curiosity organization-wide may be your best strategy.


i Barrett, F. (1998), Creativity and improvisation in jazz and organizations: Implications for organizational learning, Organization Science, 9(5), 605-622.
ii Stavros, J. and Torres, C, (2018), Conversations Worth Having: Using Appreciative Inquiry to Fuel Productive and Meaningful Engagement, p. 25.
iii Kolb, D. (2015). Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development, p. 162).


Conversation 2018:
Authentic Leadership Leverage – An Adaptation and Impact Lab
October 3 – 5
Portland, Oregon
Learning cohort now being assembled. Contact us to learn more.

The drawing above is by Ken Hubbell, interpreting the central
metaphor of Otto Scharmer’s Theory U.


Ready to lean in?

Please call me when you’re ready to shape your conversation; when you’re willing to step toward your big possibility; when you’re ready to create or rebuild a culture of authenticity, deep relationship, trust, transparency, joy…and love. Those are conversations I’ll lean into with my whole being.

Warmly, and with deep appreciation for you,




Your partners, donors, and investors (…and employees, board members, referral sources, family members…you name it) want the same thing from you—meaningful engagement. Meaningful (intentional) engagement is a reciprocal deposit in a sustainable, life-giving exchange based on values. When it’s present we feel nourished; when absent we feel starved.

Arguably, few things are as important as our relationships. I’ve long been fascinated observing how people seem to be in relationship—to self, others, work, and world. Patterns of behavior seem pretty clear to me. Individuals who seem grounded, affirmative, humble, and curious often seem the most consciously aware and confident. It often appears that they have the strongest and most reciprocal relationships, regardless of context. Alternatively, individuals who are gripped by ego, convinced of their center-of-the-universe status, emboldened by their own expertise, and bent on giving you the answer seem to have far fewer genuine relationships. A more likely reality is that most of us are somewhere in between these poles.

Because of my work in organizational change, I remain fascinated by leaders who exhibit strong alignment between good intention and their own daily attention. Leadership—like life—is a practice. Our growth, maturity, and effectiveness follows a similar pattern, yet fewer progress through all stages of this evolution. Whether reading from the ancient wisdom traditions, or studying human psychology, or exploring barriers to change, I find that we’re all somewhere along a progression that influences our thoughts, language, actions, and expectations. The progression stages of this evolution are:

  1. Being unconsciously unaware – not knowing what we don’t know and, therefore, unlikely or unable to do much about it. As a result, we tend to “bump into” some hard realities—usually the relationship kind—because we are prone toward control, manipulation, short-term “fixes” to get more of what we think we want. Language, however we may dress it up and “say the right things” is often not an outgrowth of a nourishing and conducive mindset. As a result, the language rings false in our listeners’ ears (and often in our own). Our “talk-to-do” ratio is way out of balance, as is our focus on I, me, and mine.
  2. Being consciously unaware – knowing what we don’t know and, therefore, feeling a bit disturbed toward some action to rectify the feeling of disturbance…through (experiential) learning. While this can be a liberating phase, it’s usually fraught with doubt and uncertainty, along with some predictable failures. We try on new language as we try to give voice to thoughts stemming from an evolving mindset. So focused on what we’re learning (and still want to learn), we’re often not being effective listeners. It’s like we’re trying to demonstrate mastery of some newly felt truth; our attention is on the technical aspects of the new learning more so than on the nuanced, organic nature of the new learning if we could just trust it to evolve, to let it come.
  3. Being consciously aware – evolving to this level of conscious awareness usually signals more success, growing confidence, and trust in your inner alignment of good intention and close attention. More aware of all there is to learn, you sharpen your ability and capacity to listen, trust, and invite. You are coming to explore the possibility that each of us has something to teach and something to learn. The idea of separateness is starting to dissolve. You are witnessing your adoption of a longer point of view. You’re beginning to hold more loosely the drive for milestones (achievement) and more tightly the drive for meaning (purpose, sustainable impact, equity). Failures and shortcomings still arise but you are no longer surprised by them (at least for long), nor do you deny them or explain them away. You lift them up so that you may learn from each, recognizing them as the gift they are. You begin to feel more at ease, more “in the flow.”
  4. Being unconsciously aware – describes that point of your evolution when what you “do” is eclipsed by how and who you “are.” You’re no longer consciously aligning intention and attention. It’s happening organically as a result of your practice. You find yourself generously supported by many around you, each of whom feels nourished in your company. A dimension of joy becomes more prominent…and profound…for you in your life/work. Meaning matters. Questions matter. Relationships matter. Your practice matters. Everything you need is here, right now.

“Wow….where’d that come from, Gary?!?…I thought you were talking about relating to partners, donors, and investors—that part of my work as a leader that occupies a huge percentage of my time.” In fact I am. My point is that one’s ability to relate effectively to others—to ENGAGE others in the vitality of your work and purpose—is equal to the level of one’s conscious awareness. In my view, this has less to do with skill building and more to do with discernment and contemplation/reflection—the very things leaders seem to treat as luxuries and indulgences for which there is little time or external appreciation. Locked in that frame, leaders stay trapped in a cycle of unfulfilling tension and trade-off, often suffering strain on their physical, mental, and spiritual health.

So, let’s go back to the title: Meaningful engagement is an intrinsic reward. Regardless of the context, we want much the same things from our relationships. We want to be invited to matter to others and we want others to know that they matter to us. It is intrinsic—baked in to our being. Simply said, right. But what would close observation of your thoughts, language, actions, and expectations say about what matters most to you? Being more outwardly effective in a leadership role necessitates that you are more inwardly attentive to growing our own conscious awareness. In so doing, EVERY relationship will benefit…especially the one with yourself.

Leaders Can Lean In to An Affirmative Organizational Culture

My teacher tells me that my daily practice is like adding an eyedropper of purified water to the “pool” in which I swim each day. Over time, the cumulative effect is powerful on two levels. First, my inner attunement to right action is fully activated, resulting in an easier acceptance of all that follows. Second, what I send out to the world is more often what I get back, resulting in those around me feeling their own sense of attunement.

So, could it be that much of what leaders observe and experience in their organizational cultures is, in part, a reflection of what they send out? I think it’s worth some consideration, even in the face of seemingly pervasive beliefs that organizational culture is too big to impact, too ingrained to effect, too amorphous to embrace and understand. Conventional wisdom, for all its apparent navigational assistance, is often unchallenged and unconsciously steeped in repetition of widely accepted and repeated cynicism. Consider the saying “culture eats strategy for lunch every day.” Hmm, that’s a combative view of a human system at work, isn’t it? How ‘bout the much-touted “nothing succeeds like success?” Hard to find fault with that…unless, of course, the unintended result is that widespread acceptance inside the organization produces a fear of failure that reduces imagination and experimentation. Or the leadership admonition that I encountered in many permutations in the last few decades: “don’t manage people; manage process,” as if the key objective is to completely abandon the human equation altogether.

One interpretation of these apparent “leadership aphorisms” is that they stem from a rather mechanistic view of who organizations are and how they work. In the last issue of Sadhana (March 29), I suggested a more humanistic view of the leaders’ work, beginning with how the leader intentionally listens in to their own source of alignment. I suggested that,

“Many of the best leaders believe that to be successful and fulfilled, they must truly open themselves fully (open mind, open heart, and open will) to ground their work/approach in their conscious awareness and act accordingly. This conscious awareness—which is typically not single-sourced or one dimensional—is, nonetheless, an animating force for right action and good. Because it is an expression of what is truest and best about the individual, it produces a radiating humility and greater ease in approaching the engagement of others whose innovation and energy is essential to harnessing the untapped potential of any organization.”

When a leader grows and strengthens her own conscious awareness (more a journey than a destination), more leverage for good is possible. That leverage can come in the form of more intentionally fostering of an organizational culture of transparency, trust, and reciprocity. So, an important question for any leader is what contribution are you making to the way of being you most want to observe in your organization? How is your language and behavior a reflection of what you value most? What do you imagine is possible for your organization in service of its most elevated mission?

Scholars who examine these questions closely see the direct connection of positive imagery and positive action. They have come to articulate theories of the social construction of reality, which examine the development of jointly constructed understandings of the world that form the basis for shared assumptions about reality. These jointly constructed understandings and shared assumptions about reality are the essence of the water cooler conversations—the place where the dominant organizational narrative is expressed, reinforced or challenged, reshaped or reinforced.

Leaders most consciously aware of their own deep sense of lift and possibility are more likely to see the deep sense of lift and possibility within their organization. Just as they’ve come to trust their own individual growth and alignment, they are most able to believe the same is true for their teams and entire organization. They “lean in”—starting wherever you are as if the eyedropper—in a way that appreciates principles of possibility that must be at the core of any sustained effort to foster an affirmative organizational culture.

Requisite Beliefs for Fostering an Appreciative Organizational Culture[1]

  1. Imagined and created, organizations as are products of the affirmative mind.
  2. Despite its previous history, virtually any pattern of organizational action is open to alteration and reconfiguration.
  3. Organizations are better able to transform organizational practice by replacing conventional images with widely shared imaginative images of a new and better future.
  4. Organizations will rarely rise above the dominant images of its members and stakeholders. They tend to evolve in the direction of what they value and question (study) most.
  5. The organization’s guiding affirmative projection may need to evolve.
  6. Organizations do not need to be fixed; they need constant reaffirmation.
  7. Creating the conditions for organization-wide appreciation is the single most important measure to ensure the conscious evolution of a valued and positive future.

It seems to me, therefore, that any consciously aware leader with a desire to have greater impact for good will embrace every opportunity to contribute the best of her conscious awareness—her leadership authenticity—toward fostering more of the type of organizational culture that fuels the collective path toward more beneficial, more desirable outcomes. If leaders abdicate this opportunity for leverage—whether feeling ill-equipped, inconsequential, and/or otherwise distracted toward the “deliverable du jour”—then who will intentionally work toward crafting this affirmative narrative of possibility? And if there is no widely shared affirmative narrative of possibility, then the organization (and its leaders and members) are all just pursuing projects and initiatives toward some vague sense of “there.”


[1] These seven beliefs are adapted from much of the seminal work of David Cooperrider, especially Positive Image, Positive Action: The Affirmative Basis of Organizing, contained in Srivastva, S. and Cooperrider, D. (1999), Appreciative Management and Leadership, Rev. Euclid, OH, Lakeshore Communications, pp. 91-125.