by Steve Collins, Director of Training and Development Lead International USA

Most leaders don’t start out at the top and their careers are marked by a series of promotions.  There are many benefits to this approach but there is at least one big challenge created.  With each promotion, there is the message that you are doing well.  In many cases you are not just doing well but are doing better than your peers – the ones who didn’t get chosen for the greater responsibility, increased paycheck and bigger office.

As the leader begins to interact with those he has bypassed on the corporate ladder, he can begin to treat people a bit differently.  And certainly as he rises to the higher levels of the organization, people will treat him differently.  This may be subtle at first but over time can simply become the default setting for most interactions.

In some cultural and organizational settings, the greater distance between leader and follower is encouraged and even celebrated.   Decision-making and communication follow a clear top-down direction at each level of the organization.  Even in cultures and organizations that espouse a more egalitarian approach, the preferred communication approach is telling rather than asking.  We learn early in our school days that the reward is for being the first to accurately answer the teacher’s question. It is a lesson that never leaves us.  In meetings, giving the answer is always more valued than asking the right question.  Also as adults we are quick to inform others if they tell us something we already know.  There seems to be little benefit to being the one who is forced to ask a question and expose his ignorance.

Humble Inquiry - Edgar Schein (review by Steve Collins)

Humble Inquiry – Edgar Schein (review by Steve Collins)

Edgar Schein in Humble Inquiry takes a different view.  He defines humble inquiry as, “the skill and 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.”  Schein believes leaders who practice a humble inquiry approach are able to overcome the barriers of a telling culture that make it difficult to create learners and leaders across an organization.

Most of us are well versed in what Schein terms “basic humility.”  We interact with others showing respect and civility. In many societies this is not so much a choice as a condition.  We also practice “optional humility” generally based on one’s position or achievements.  When we meet someone for the first time and learn of their occupation, education, and background, that informs us of how we should treat them.  If we perceive that their status and achievements are higher than ours, we will naturally show more deference.  Schein calls this optional because we can choose to put ourselves in the presence of  “higher status” people and we can choose to whom we compare ourselves.

Humble inquiry is based on “here and now humility.”  This requires me to feel that I am dependent on the other person.  This can be quite uncomfortable for a leader who derives his personal value from always being the one with the answers. For those leaders they may choose to avoid a task rather than make themselves dependent on someone of lower “rank.”

“Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it is thinking of yourself less.” -C.S. Lewis

For leaders who fear that humility will weaken their status, it may be helpful to consider C.S. Lewis’ definition. “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it is thinking of yourself less.”  Leaders who practice humility have an other-centric perspective. From that perspective, it becomes natural to show vulnerability and curiosity.

Asking questions is a critical skill in practicing humble inquiry. Schein contrasts humble inquiry with confrontational inquiry where you insert your own ideas but in the form of a question.  Confrontational inquiry often takes the form of leading questions or yes/no questions.  The leader’s motivation is driven by thinking, “I have an answer and I am just testing out whether or not I am right.”  The best questions are driven by curiosity and often connect at the personal rather than at the technical level.  

Humble inquiry is not just about asking others questions but also asking yourself. Schein encourages us to first ask ourselves, “What is going on here? What would be the appropriate thing to do? What am I thinking and feeling and wanting?” before leaping into action.  He adds, “Learning humble inquiry is not learning how to run faster but how to slow down in order to make sure that I have observed carefully and taken full stock of situational reality.”

True humility is very much dependent on our character.  Some leaders have learned how to appear humble in order to manipulate others rather than truly serve them.  But their followers eventually discover the leader who overvalues results and undervalues relationships.

Schein argues that leaders who fail to practice humble inquiry negatively impact results. He writes, “The world is becoming more technologically complex, interdependent, and culturally diverse which makes the building of relationships more and more necessary to get things accomplished and at the same time more difficult. Relationships are the key to good communication; good communication is the key to successful task accomplishments; and humble inquiry, based on here-and-now humility, is the key to good relationships.”

Practicing humble inquiry will take many leaders out of their comfort zone.  But once a leader has created an environment of humble inquiry, he will discover how much easier it is to lead others who he knows and trusts and who know and trust him.

©2016 Lead International