Humble Inquiry – by Edgar Schein

Humble Inquiry

Creating positive relationships and effective organizations

Why is it so important to learn to ask better questions? In an increasingly complex, interdependent and culturally diverse world, we cannot hope to instantly understand and work with people from different occupational, professional and national cultures. Says Edgar Schein.

Humble Inquiry is the fine art of drawing someone out, of asking questions to which you do not already know the answer, of building a relationship based on curiosity and interest in the other person. It’s an essential art to collaboration, culture, change and leadership.

Climate of Openness

In nuclear plant accidents, the NASA Challenger disaster and the British Petroleum gulf spill – a common finding is that lower-ranking employees had information that would have prevented or lessened the consequences – but it was not passed on, it was ignored or overridden. How can that be?

Senior managers always assure they are open – says Schein – and I recognize that from my culture work. However, what is missing is a climate in which lower-level employees feel safe to bring up issues. In most cultures, speaking up to a person of higher status is taboo. That’s why higher-ranking leaders must learn the art of humble inquiry and do the first step in creating a climate of openness, argues Schein. It is their duty as leaders.

It is the duty of leaders to create a climate of openness. Click To Tweet

m_C3POBut all of us should tell less, ask more and listen better! That’s recognizable, isn’t it? We’re biased toward telling because Americans live in a pragmatic, problem-solving culture, claims Schein. In this society, task accomplishment is more important than building relationships. I guess this counts for Western-Europe and Australia as well.

Asking builds relationships

How does asking build relationships? Telling puts the other person down, in a way. It implies they don’t know what I’m telling them. But asking empowers the other – it implies they know something I want to know – and it makes me vulnerable. I need something from them.

In asking, trust builds on my end when the other doesn’t ignore or ridicule me but answers my question. At the same time, trust builds on their end because I show an interest and pay attention.

This is only true if you ask open questions and you’re not merely testing your own ideas. “You were hiding in your cubicle to avoid a confrontation with our manager, right?”

Here-and-now humility

Schein urges leaders to become aware of what he calls “here-and-now humility”: in this situation, we’re interdependent; the other has the power to help or hinder me. This counts for everyone in a team – but the boss is not always aware of the fact that they depend on the team as well!

Everyone is interdependent, the other has power to help or hinder. Click To Tweet

Schein uses the example of a surgical team in the UK: with a British senior surgeon, a Japanese anesthesiologist and the surgical nurse from the USA and the surgical tech. How are they to collaborate and save patient’s lives if they can’t be completely open when it matters most? What if the British surgeon makes a mistake? Will the British surgical tech say something (not a chance)? Will the Japanese colleague say something (maybe indirect but he doesn’t want the surgeon to lose face). Will the American nurse say something (maybe, if she’s the brave type).

All leaders should be sensitive to the cultural rules around speaking up across boundaries and they need to change those rules within their teams. It might be difficult to be honest if you’ve not built a relationship where it is normal and safe to do so.

Being here-and-now humble might imply a loss of status in an achievement-oriented culture that values knowledge. But yet, the surgeon, as the team’s leader, should practice humble inquiry to get to know the team better and to open up the space. So during an operation, the others will intervene if necessary instead of stay silent.

Schein’s advice is: ask more and ask openly. When he was the chair of his department with 15 professors, their phone costs were too high. The dean told Schein to get the cost down. Schein’s options were: 1) go over the cost with each professor (and make them defensive). 2) check the list and only talk to the ones with the high cost (defensive responses). He chose the third option he saw: he focused on the goal but tried to keep the relationship well. He sent a note to all 15 professors: please check your list of phone calls to see if they were legitimate. If they were not, please keep the cost down in the future. He trusted them to do so. And he was asking for their help.

Don't assume you know what the other wants or needs. Click To Tweet

m_askAsk, don’t assume

Don’t assume you know what the other wants or needs! Clear your mind and maximize your listening: access your ignorance and ask questions in the least biased and threatening way.

Schein explains different lines of questioning that contain your advice or prejudice – even if you don’t mean to. Humble inquiry is a subtle art and people are sensitive beings. Compare: “Have you thought of going on a diet?” versus: “What are you doing about your weight?” The first question is more likely to trigger a defensive response.

Culture of do and tell

I personally like the chapters that describe culture. Says Schein about the US culture: “We claim to value teamwork (espoused value) but our artifacts, and our promotional systems are individualistic.”

American culture is optimistic, individualistic, pragmatic, and competitive. It’s oriented toward the short-term, arrogant, thinking we can fix anything, impatient. “We do not like or trust groups. We admire the individual star who gets paid more. We believe accountability should be individual. We admire competitiveness over relationships.”

Status and prestige are gained by task accomplishment, and once you are above someone else, you are licensed to tell them what to do. The best engineer and the best salesperson are promoted to be supervisors. Social distance across ranks is considered okay. Personal relationships across ranks are considered dangerous because they could lead to a bias in assigning work and rewards.

Deep down, many of us still believe that if you win the debate, the other will lose. The idea of winning both is not on our radar. We expect conversations to reach a conclusion (fast). When in telling mode, we hope to educate, impress, score points, to entertain. Ed Schein: “I suspect we all do more telling than we should.”

m_constructionThe person of higher status does more telling and the subordinate does more listening. This only works when they have the same goal, the superior knows more and the subordinate understands what he’s being told… Maybe those conditions existed back in the industrial age – but are they still prevalent today?

To ask can be seen as ignorance and weakness – while as a leader, you are supposed to know what to do. Telling is expected and respected. And it feels so good to give advice, thinking we have solved someone else’s problem… Well, this may be outdated thinking!

Leaders depend on employees

Western, egalitarian and individualistic cultures often appreciate high achievers, explains Schein. The awareness of interdependency is often missing: that you need the others on the team!

We know intuitively and from experience that we work better on a complex, interdependent task with someone we know and trust, but we are not prepared to spend the time, the effort and money to ensure that such relationships are built.

Leaders depend on the employees and must show here and now humility. Click To Tweet

Consider how much work in today’s technologically complex world cannot be done by the leader. Therefore, the leader depends on the employees and must show here-and-now humility. Subordinates are always in a vulnerable position and must be reassured before they will commit to open communication and collaboration.

m_humble-inquirySlow down and discover WHO you/they are

So, the final advice Schein gives us: it matters WHO we are, as leaders, professionals, change agents, workers. We need to acknowledge the other as a whole person beyond their professional role. It’s the start of building the relationship.

We also have to avoid acting on incorrect data: Asking is the start… You need to slow down and build trust. But once the relationship is built, the work is done faster!

Finally, in this Western, task-oriented culture of do and tell, the most important thing to learn is how to reflect. Slow down and connect with your team. Reflect. I couldn’t agree more!

Humble Inquiry

It’s a small book, so why don’t you put it on your reading list? And ask yourself:

  • How can I ask more?
  • How can I help myself to listen instead of talk? As of now?
  • When can I make the time to connect with my team this week?
  • How can I humbly inquire what they need, want and think…?
  • What would they not like to tell me? What would be vital to know?
  • How can we practice sharing and transparency before we need it (in a crisis)?
  • How can we practice the behaviors of asking and listening to learn something new?


Leave a Reply

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Jan Lelie

    Thanks for the review, Marcella. I’ve always liked Schein’s approach. In my own book on facilitation, I used his 10 insights about process consultancy and all that mess. In our recent conference on Facilitative Leadership the issue of humbleness also came up, in the key note by Laurens Schrijnen.

  2. Marcella; Thanks for engaging Ed. I look forward to reviewing this helpful booklet. But, re “humble”, that doesn’t click well with me- even less than “appreciative inquiry.” Humble can involve condescending and bullying (regularly prevalent), and appreciative can involve just the opposite (non-appreciative) and dysfunction. Our 1963 NSF Study re the main needs re Continuing Ed in Science & Engineering called for cultivating the “spirit of Inquiry!” I share with many others that NTL T-Groups, and Action Learning groups, have worked well for Teams involved in Science , Technology, and Management.

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