Humble Inquiry

If you want to improve the communication in your company at every level you should read ”

Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling written

by Edgar H. Schein


I extracted the following sentences from

Leaders Should Use Humble Inquiry
He believes leaders should not focus on changing culture but on solving business problems and he outlined this and other insights in part one of his interview.  His most recent book Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling outlines an approach leaders should utilize to build trust and surface real issues and potential solutions to those business problems.

He explained, “humble inquiry is creating a climate in which you display, through your asking genuine questions, an interest in the other person such that they will want to tell you the truth about what really is going on. Now why is that important? I think the major pathology in all organizations that I’ve seen is that upward communication is very faulty. Subordinates know lots of things that would make the place work better or safer that they for various reasons withhold. If you survey them and ask ‘why aren’t you telling your boss what is really going on, they’ll say 1) he shoots the messengers, 2) I used to tell him but he never really took any interest in it, or 3) I tell him but they never fix anything so I no longer have any incentive to tell.’ Now, if I’m right and that is the problem, the only way to cure that is for the boss to change his behavior, to go to that subordinate and engage in humble inquiry. Say to that subordinate, ‘I’m really interested in what you see in how we can be safer and better and what not, and I’m listening.’ If the boss doesn’t do that, we are going to continue to have accidents and low quality products because the information isn’t surfacing.”

We All Have Experience with Humble Inquiry
“All of us know how to be humbly inquiring. We do it with our friends, relatives, children and parents, so it’s not a skill we don’t have.”  The issue is “when we take it to the work place, for some reason we think we should now get stiff and formal. The switch I have to learn to make, if I’m an old leader and I’m dissatisfied and want to change this, is I have to wake up to the fact that these subordinates are people and I have to get interested in them. If I get interested in them and curious, the behavior will become natural. It is not a new skill, it is applying an old skill in a new setting and recognizing its relevance.”

Leaders Should “Orchestrate”
He had some interesting insights into why more leaders don’t apply humble inquiry. “The larger culture of management says: once you’re a manager, now you have the right to tell other people what to do which is really how a lot of young managers behave. They think, ‘okay, now I’m the boss, so I get to tell.’ This culture of ‘tell’ is very congruent with western capitalist culture because our whole foundation is built on the higher you go, the more you know and the more you can tell people what to do. Work now is a highly distributed process where lots of things have to play together for the product to go out the door and so it’s no longer a case of where the manager can tell what to do.  The manager now has to orchestrate, create relationships and make sure everything works together.

I don’t think very many managers have figured that out. They still think they’re the boss rather than the orchestrator.”

Leaders in the Field of Culture Work
He believes “the important leaders today are the sociologist and anthropologist who study actual occupational cultures.”

“I don’t see the psychologist doing very much. It is the sociologist who are doing field work and studying real occupations and real cultural phenomenon that are the real leaders.”

“It is case work that will educate us because you’ll discover things that aren’t visible and yet that are very exciting.”

When asked about whether he expects to see more of this work, he said “I would hope so, but I’m a little bit pessimistic because it’s so much easier to work with surveys and statistics and superficial stuff that it drives out the more intensive case work that the field worker gets involved in. So I think we need the field work. Will we get it in the business schools? Will we get it from consultants? I think consultants hide their good stuff. They don’t tell the stories that really would educate the field. So I think we need we need it. I think I’m somewhat pessimistic whether we will get it.”

Edgar Schein’s Future Work
“What I really want to work on next is: what is the relationship, what is trust? I’m working with a colleague now where we’ve been trying to examine this process we call ‘seeing another person.’ What does it mean for me to say, I think I see you now? And seeing how that process is integral to the relationships. When things don’t work, it’s when people don’t see each other clearly. I’ve also written some memoirs that lead to various kinds of small books, so I’m basically a writer and continue to write.”

To sum it up, I strongly recommend to you to read this book to avoid the usual culture of “Telling” instead of “Asking” that I convinced you will get better results from your employees and peers.



Mario Lucero

Mario Lucero

I am all about helping companies to adopt agile as methodology in Chile.


I believe many organizations think that agile is not for Chilean companies because of Chilean culture is totally
different from i.e. USA culture but I worked with Chilean professionals who after using agile realized it is feasible
to implement it.

Agile works in small and large projects and there are many evidences which demonstrate this.

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