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Concise, cogent, and informed by a wealth of direct experience, "Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling," by Edgar H. Schein, is a testament to the importance of asking questions in a way that enables others to feel comfortable giving honest answers. A pioneer in organizational development whose work has been instrumental in shaping the field since the 1950s, Schein distills lessons from a lifetime of practice in solving difficult organizational problems, helping people build strong relationships, and moving cultures in a positive direction. Simple and profoundly wise, "Humble Inquiry," the best business book of the year in this category, has the makings of a classic.
Although the book wears its learning lightly, its ambitions are far from modest, for Schein sets out to do nothing less than identify and address the root causes of miscommunication in our business culture. In his view, there are two essential problems. The first is our preference for telling rather than asking. Schein finds this especially characteristic of managers in the United States, who are immersed in a tradition of pragmatic problem solving that places a premium on efficiency and speed. The second problem is the high value many leaders place on task accomplishment as opposed to relationship building, which can make them impatient with the slow work of earning real trust. In Schein’s experience, many leaders either are not aware of these cultural biases or don’t care enough to be bothered with redressing them.
Schein believes that such attitudes have become newly problematic in a diverse global environment in which a growing proportion of individuals do not necessarily share those values, and in which teams are an increasingly common organizational unit. Despite the prevalence of language exalting teamwork, Schein notes that promotional and rewards systems in many companies remain almost entirely individualistic. This creates an emphasis on star performers that can undermine engagement and trust.
The disjunction becomes particularly acute when leaders simply assume that positional power ensures that their subordinates will correctly interpret and act upon their instructions. Those who take this approach are often content to toss off a pro forma request for assent—“Does anyone have any problems with this approach?”—and leave it at that. Blinded by presumptions about the value of their status and unaware of the cultural and status constraints under which subordinates may labor, leaders intent on speed and efficiency often miss essential information. In high-risk fields, these miscommunications can have catastrophic consequences, against which checklists and professional training offer insufficient protection.
At several points in the book, Schein illustrates the potential for miscommunication by using examples from a typical British hospital. The operating team consists of a British senior surgeon who also works with the royal family, an anesthesiologist recently arrived from Japan, a surgical nurse from the U.S. who’s in the U.K. because of her husband’s job, and a surgical tech from a working-class London district. Though each member of the team is a highly trained professional, these diverse individuals all have cultural reasons to avoid sharing unwelcome information with the surgeon. The anesthesiologist comes from a culture in which those with higher status cannot be openly confronted, so he appears to agree with the surgeon even when his experience suggests another approach. The nurse is sensitive to the anesthesiologist’s status and does not want to embarrass him in front of the surgeon by questioning his decision to go along with whatever the surgeon says. The tech cannot imagine anyone on the team listening to a concern voiced by someone of his background and so fails to offer any views and just follows orders.
Schein describes the various circumstances under which cultural and status constraints inhibit this team from engaging in the kind of frank exchange that their complex work requires. Though each team member has specific expertise, they all fail to use it to advantage unless those with higher status humble themselves by asking questions that demonstrate their reliance on others. He further notes that some variation on this situation occurs in every kind of organization, often every day, because even as leaders struggle to create conditions that promote free exchange, expressing humility can make them feel vulnerable. True humility requires admitting dependence on those lower in the hierarchy. Only when leaders are able to overcome their fear of exhibiting such dependence can they allow their curiosity to lead them to vital information.
"Humble Inquiry" redresses this condition by showing managers a variety of ways to frame questions to which they do not know the answer. Schein is careful to distinguish humble questions from leading questions, rhetorical questions, embarrassing questions, or statements masquerading as questions. He also notes that the burden for asking such questions always falls on the higher-status person in an exchange. Humble inquiry is therefore especially useful as a management practice.
Like Peter Drucker, Schein rarely cites or draws from work that is not his own, an approach that paradoxically gives his observations added authority and weight. The methods he sets forth have obvious utility in many situations, but seem particularly useful for organizations undertaking complex initiatives such as culture change. In fact, it’s not extreme to say that no leader should attempt such a venture without first consulting "Humble Inquiry."