Oswald Letter

Embrace your workers’ curiosity

by Dan Oswald

I’ve been reading Tell My Sons . . . by Lieutenant Colonel Mark Weber. The book is filled with the life lessons he has learned. After a routine Army physical revealed he had stage IV intestinal cancer, he began a battle for his life that he ultimately will lose. When he realized he wouldn’t be able to conquer his cancer, he began writing a letter to his three sons, which became this book.

One piece of advice from Weber to his sons struck me as I read the book this morning. He writes, “I propose to you that you’ll find answers to your questions by taking just one step beyond what others tell you that you shouldn’t. Be curious and ask just one more question. Be persistent and insist on just one more consideration. Speak out. At least try.”

That’s a lot of advice packed into just a few sentences, and all of it is sound. Weber tells his boys, “Be curious and ask just one more question.” That’s great advice for you and for me. A healthy curiosity can be an asset in the workplace. Asking questions—figuring out how things work or why they are a certain way—can lead to new discoveries. Being curious and encouraging your people to be the same can result in new breakthroughs and lead to exciting opportunities.

Earlier in my career, I was traveling with my boss. This was in the mid-1990s, and we were flying home from Washington, D.C.’s Reagan National Airport. As was our custom, we had checked our luggage and were sitting in the gate area carrying on a conversation and waiting for all the other passengers to board. Instead of standing in line, we would remain comfortably in our seats and listen for the final boarding call.

But this time something different happened. Instead of hearing a final boarding call for the flight, we heard our names being called. The airline knew exactly which passengers hadn’t boarded the flight. It seems like an ordinary occurrence today, but at the time, we had never experienced this. As we approached the gate attendant and handed her our tickets to board the flight, I asked, “How did you know we weren’t already on the plane?”

The airline employee didn’t just tell me—she also showed me. She ran the ticket below a bar code reader and told me how every ticket now was tied back to the individual passenger. Like I said, it seems like a no-brainer today, but at the time it was new technology. As we walked down the Jetway, my boss said, “That’s one of the things that makes you good at what you do.” Not understanding what he meant, I asked, “What’s that?” His reply came, “Your curiosity. You could have just handed her your ticket and boarded the plane, but you wanted to know how it worked—how they could have known that we were the two passengers still not on the plane. So you asked.”

Without really thinking about it, I had done what Weber suggests to his sons—I had been curious and had asked one more question. Through my curiosity, I had learned something. What I could or would do with that knowledge is anyone’s guess. I can’t tell you that it led to any great breakthrough or that it led to some innovation in our business, but it could have or still may. The point is that being curious and asking questions will lead to greater knowledge, and that’s a good thing. Being curious and asking questions will lead to new information, and that’s a good thing. So I suggest to you that you should be curious, and as a manager, you should encourage your people to do the same.

When an employee asks you a question—why something is done a certain way or even done at all—do you take the time to explain it, or are you more apt to brush the question off with, “Don’t worry about why; just do it”? You see, if we as managers don’t embrace the questions those who work for us ask, then we’re discouraging their curiosity. And when you discourage curiosity, you’re standing in the way of their gaining new information and knowledge. No manager should ever want to do that to the people who work for him.

Encourage your people to ask questions. Embrace their curiosity. And when those questions are directed at you, take the time to provide meaningful answers because that’s how they’ll learn. You want your people to be curious and ask questions—doing so can lead to exciting and wonderful things.