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Research

In this video step, Dr. Diane Hamilton explores how understanding what holds us back can help us move forward.
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So the reason I created an assessment was because I wanted to know what held people back and how you can move forward. So if we can get a baseline measurement on people, we can find out what stops us and create an action plan. And the problem is quantifying those things was much more challenging than I had anticipated. But now I know why no one had created a way to measure it before. But after years of exploration and several psychometric statisticians and researchers and thousands of people, I was able to isolate the questions to find out the factors that keep us from being curious. And those four factors are the acronym FATE, which stands for Fear, Assumptions, Technology, and Environment.
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I want to share the results I found in my years of research, because a lot of it ties into the things we’ve learned, including how to have tough conversations, create trust. And a lot of that ties in to getting over fear. The first area of my research uncovered a big impactor of curiosity, which is fear. When I first started studying curiosity, I put a questionnaire into LinkedIn and asked everyone what they believed held them back from being curious. Overwhelmingly, the response was fear. No one wants to look dumb. We’ve all been in meetings where we’ve had that question. And we dread asking it because what if everyone else knows the answer and I’m the only one who doesn’t?
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You’ve probably whispered to the guy next to you, hey Bob, why don’t you ask whatever question? Because it’s better for Bob to look dumb, right? You don’t want to look dumb. Fear paralyses us into inaction. And we might have had experiences where we were made to feel uncomfortable. I certainly have. I can remember a leader who asked me to do something that I’d never done in the past. Told him I’d be happy to do that, that I’d never done it before, and how do I do it? And he looked at me with the most disgusted look on his face and he said, I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear that. So what does that do to employees?
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It tells them that they just said something that they’re really stupid, it tells them that they should pretend they know things they don’t know, it encourages them not to be honest, and some people, many people, frankly, shut down their desire to explore and never ask questions like that again. In this guy’s defence, his leaders treated him that way. He was taught this is how you lead. He wasn’t a bad guy. He was just emulating what he thought he should say as a leader. How many of you had leaders like that? They seemed very nice and normal outside of work, and then put that leader hat on them and suddenly they get a little power crazy, right?
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And that can shut people down fast. I’d like to share some examples of people who’ve overcome fear, and Hellicy Ng’ambi is one of them. And Hellicy is one of the most inspirational people I’ve met in my lifetime. She was on my show and she told me her story where she came from a tiny village in Africa with no electricity or running water. To go to school, she had to cross a big river, had to carry all of her supplies for the week, including her food, her clothes, her mat, anything she needed for the week, on her head. And if it rained, that river became quite forceful and caused– some of her friends died trying to cross it.
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Now she could have given up her hope of having an education by giving in to her fear. A lot of us would. But she embraced curiosity and that burning desire to learn. She was determined to become educated and risked her life every time she crossed that river. Now, years later, she’s named the first-ever female vice chancellor at a public university in Zambia. Steve Jobs said, you know, most people don’t get these experiences because they don’t ask. Well, Hellicy asked. And he found never had anybody turn him down if he asked. And that’s what separates the people who succeed from those who don’t. You must be willing to explore questions and follow opportunities that could cause you to fail.
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If you’re afraid of failing, you’re not going to get very far. You have to help people get over their fears so they can communicate better. And leaders and employees all have that fear of being discovered that they don’t know as much as they should know. And you can help bridge that communication gap to help facilitate important conversations that people are afraid to have. And you can just be a mediating party that can help sides to feel comfortable about asking questions. So to help people overcome their fear, it’s critical to open a dialogue about the value of contributions and questions to the overall success of the organisation, as well as the development of individual.
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When leaders say things like don’t bring me a problem if you don’t have a solution, it shuts down the potential for people to point out issues, even if they don’t have the skills to solve them. So leaders can model behaviour they would like their employees to display. Being humble and expressing that no question is a dumb question is really essential. So to model that, leaders must be willing to show that they, too, don’t know everything. When employees recognise that leaders allow themselves to be more vulnerable and human, it will enable them to be the same. The second factor that impacts curiosity is our assumptions or the voice in our heads.
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And when I think of the voice in our heads, I think of a cartoon from Dr. Katz, who played a psychologist who had patients who were guest stars each week. They were comedians. In one episode, one of the patients says, I don’t mind the voice in my head so much, I just wish it didn’t have a stutter. Those voices can really hold us back. That’s why it’s critical to recognise them. Let me demonstrate the impact. As I hold this glass of water, I usually ask crowds before I speak, how heavy is this? And usually they are expecting some kind of half full, half empty scenario, and they may yell out, 6 ounces, 12 ounces, whatever they think it is.
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However, the actual weight doesn’t matter. What matters is how long I hold it. A minute might not be a big deal. But after an hour, my arm starts to feel a dull ache. If I hold it all day, my arm might feel paralysed. So the weight never changed, just how long I held it impacted how heavy it felt. Stresses and worries of life are like this water. If we hold them for a little while, not much happens. If we continue to think about them for longer, we feel the pain. And if we think about them all day, then we can become paralysed and helpless. That’s how assumptions paralyse us.
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As we tell ourselves we can’t do something or something’s too hard, the more we listen to that voice, the more paralysed we become. We have limited time and we waste it worrying about the noise in our head. We let other people’s opinions shape that voice. And we need to recognise how these voices in our head impact us, because like the water, the longer we hold onto it, the more paralysed we become. We need to put the glass down.
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I’ve met a lot of amazing people who were able to tell themselves that they could do anything. I always admire these stories. And I remember having Erik Weihenmayer on my show. He was not born blind, but a disease eventually robbed him of his eyesight. And he could have given up. He could have wallowed in self-pity. Instead, he decided to explore. You’ve probably seen him on Oprah, or one of many of his bestselling books. He’s the first blind person to hike all the top summits in the world. And he could have easily told himself, that’s too hard for a blind man to do that. He did not let that voice in his head hold him back.
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He river rafted the Grand Canyon. And we learn a lot from people who question that voice in their heads. What if everything’s not right or wrong, just different options? And if we don’t put a stigma on our choices as being positive or negative, just different opportunities, it changes our perception. Third factor that impacts curiosity is technology. And this isn’t my mum, but my mum is from the generation that has their own unique perception of technology because it’s so out of their time frame, so foreign to that generation. And my mum won’t do anything on her computer because she’s afraid it’s going to break, right? And I remember giving her her first computer.
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She took the mouse and waved it in the air instead of putting it on the table because it seemed like that was intuitive to her. So I get all these calls every day about something crazy happening on the computer. And you know that. You give your parents technology, you become tech support, right? It’s hard for them. No matter what she sees on her computer, she has the same response. It’s not there. She doesn’t find it. Because it’s all about AOL. I made the mistake of giving her all kinds of technology. And if you ever want to learn a lesson in patience, give your parents lots of technology. Have them enter their email address with the Apple TV remote. It’s crazy.
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People like my mum can either be afraid of messing up their computer or they’re lazy. There’s the other extreme, right? There’s some people who either overutilize or underutilize technology. Age doesn’t have to be the obstacle to it. And all of it, it requires curiosity. And many of you know Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple. Steve, with Steve Jobs, his name is Woz as he’s known. And he wrote the book iWoz. He had a great fortune of having a father who worked at an electronics company. Because of his father’s job, Woz was home with all kinds of resistors and cables and all kinds of gadgets that his dad gave him, and they were fun to tinker around with.
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But his father didn’t just go, here Woz, figure it out, and hand them all these cables. He explained the basics of physics to him in a way that a child can understand. He gave him kid-friendly diagrams and stories of inventors like Thomas Edison. But not everyone has that good fortune of being exposed to technology in that way. Some of us find technology just overwhelming. Or we rely on it too much. We maybe don’t understand the foundation behind things. Because we don’t explore the why, the how, and the what if kind of scenarios, we often miss opportunities for how to best utilise technology to help us explore the things we might find passion exploring.
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Some of us might think Google has dumbed us down because Google answers all those questions, or so does Alexa. Arguably, today Alexa can do the same thing just by asking many of those questions. It makes us maybe no longer curious about the trivia questions. We just answer them. Organisations can help employees recognise their level of technological knowledge and work with them to improve foundational levels, as well as explore potential uses for problem solving. The fourth and final factor that impacts curiosity is our environment. Sometimes we have amazing stories of environments. Wozniak’s story is one. He said that if he had to guess, he thought 80% of who shaped us from our childhoods came from our home.
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But we know 98% of statistics are made up, so it’s probably not accurate. But regardless of the percentage, the reality is not all environments are positive. And not all bad environments cause us to give up. Some people push against their environment to their advantage in an I’ll show you kind of way. But you can’t count on that. Many people will be held back by their family, their friends, their leaders, and even social media. Unfortunately, there are far more examples of people who did not overcome their environment than those who did. We saw the charts of how much our environment changes based on age.
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We all start off at this high level of curiosity and then our environment can beat it out of us. When we’re children, we might have had teachers who didn’t have time to answer all our questions. We might have siblings or friends who criticise our interests. Even social media can have an impact. We all want to have likes, but what do you do if you post something that doesn’t receive a lot of likes? You take it down. You feel bad, right? Our leaders in our workplace have a big impact. We need to look at how things are rejected or rewarded at work. Are we rewarding short-term decision making, going by the book, fitting in?
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If so, that explains what happened to curiosity and creativity. If everyone’s always in agreement, that’s not a good sign. People want to be liked, but that can hold them back from exploration. Consider the example of when the bell rang. No one wanted to be the one who didn’t stand up. But somebody who did stand up was Zander Lurie. He’s the CEO of SurveyMonkey, and I was able to interview him on my show and discuss the importance of curiosity with him. Curiosity is at the top of their list of the most important things they want to develop in their employees.
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I asked him about how they go about developing it, and he said they ask questions, like how can we help make our products more productive for our customers? How can we make an environment here at SurveyMonkey so that people can do their best work of their lives? The company tries to embrace collaborative culture, and when they have direct conversations and constant dialogue, they give honest feedback and have mentorships, they do a lot of things like skip level meetings with people so that they don’t have to report to their direct reports. This is what happens when a company that trades on feedback, they live up to their ideals. And they celebrate asking people for feedback.
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They ask people for growth opportunities, developmental opportunities, celebrating good questions. And that challenges the status quo.
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When I started to write about the importance of curiosity, it became clear really quickly that I didn’t just want to explore the importance of it. I wanted to fix it. And that’s when I started working on determining the things that inhibit people. Once you have a baseline measurement, you can move forward. You can improve. And I spent years of researching this and testing this, and I wanted to be sure that it was something that I could give value to what we’ve seen just in the levels of emotional intelligence and everything else that we’ve seen in the exploration that’s out there in human behaviour.
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So I tested my research on thousands of people and found these four factors really held people back pretty evenly across the board. I kind of expected fear to be the highest level, but we know that some of these can overlap. For example, you can have fear of technology.

When I researched assessments that measured curiosity, I was surprised that all of those assessments just measured if we had high or low levels of curiosity.

That led to my question “What happens if we have low levels?” which then led to my research regarding what inhibits curiosity.

Discussion

Why can understanding what holds us back help us move forward?
Share your thoughts in the comments below.

References

Prof. Hellicy C. Ng’ambi [Internet]. Boz.zm. [cited 9 September 2020]. Available from: https://www.boz.zm/about/prof-hellicy-c-ng-ambi-bio.htm

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