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Best Books to Buy: "Humble Inquiry" by Edgar Schein - GoLeanSixSigma.com

This month’s book is Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling by Edgar Schein.

About the Book:
"Humble Inquiry" by Edgar Schein - GoLeanSixSigma.com

“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.”

Did you know Americans value “telling” more than “asking?” This is a good thing when family members tell stories around a dinner table. But it loses its appeal when your dinner date is in “transmit only” mode. Edgar Schein points out that a culture of “telling” in the workplace means people take action and make decisions with insufficient information. A lack of inquiry becomes dangerous in certain industries. When a physician fails to ask key questions of an anesthesiologist before an operation, a patient’s life could be at risk. The remedy is simple but not necessarily easy.

This slip of a book packs a disproportionate punch in terms of its impact. Just tipping the balance in favor of asking over telling can prevent hospital disasters, turn people into better leaders and help build dynamic, problem-solving cultures. “Ask, Don’t Tell” sounds simple but it’s not easy pushing back against a cultural norm of the world’s preeminent super power. Lucky for us, Mr. Schein breaks it down and makes it doable.

In the spirit of inquiry, the author includes “Questions for the Reader” at the end of each chapter. These segments provide moments of reflection. It’s a chance for readers to practice Humble Inquiry on themselves while at the same time, cementing some of the concepts. Edgar Schein provides a little long-distance mentorship as he encourages his readers to look within.

Is Humility Deference?

The first chapter breaks “Humility” into 3 categories. He’s not concerned with the “humility we feel around elders and dignitaries.” Nor is he discussing “the humility we feel in the presence of those who awe us with their achievements.” He’s concerned with something he calls “Here-and-Now Humility” which addresses the workplace reality of our reliance on others in order to get things done.

“Talking and listening have received enormous attention via hundreds of books on communication. But the social art of asking a question has been strangely neglected.” He points out that when we are “telling” we are often, even if subtly, putting others down. The implication is that the other person doesn’t already know what we’re telling them. Without asking, there’s no way to know. “On the other hand, asking temporarily empowers the other person in the conversation and temporarily makes [the asker] vulnerable.” Vulnerability is where humility comes in.

Talking and listening have received enormous attention via hundreds of books on communication. But the social art of asking a question has been strangely neglected.

Humble Inquiry is “ultimately the basis for building trusting relationships, which facilitates better communication and, thereby, ensures collaboration where it is needed to get the job done.” Organizations are complex arenas where success is tied to our ability to handle interdependence. We use the term “matrixed” to describe the webs of reporting and “dotted line” relationships that define modern organizational structure. The key is navigating these interdependencies by using the right kind of inquiry to build and foster critical relationships.

Humble Inquiry is “ultimately the basis for building trusting relationships, which facilitates better communication and, thereby, ensures collaboration where it is needed to get the job done.”

What Makes Inquiry Humble?

Asking a question constitutes inquiry, but it’s not necessarily humble. Some questions are controlling and some resemble statements. Mr. Schein breaks inquiry into 4 types:

  1. Humble Inquiry: Assessing one’s own ignorance in the least biased and unthreatening way — “What brings you here?”
  2. Diagnostic Inquiry: Steering the conversation to get specific information — “How did you get here?”
  3. Confrontational Inquiry: Inserting your own ideas in the form of a question — “Why don’t we go to the movies tonight?”
  4. Process-Oriented Inquiry: Focusing on the conversation itself — “Did I offend you?”

He points out that most of us are good at asking diagnostic and confrontational questions. The trick is to stay curious about the person your talking to while letting go of preconceptions. “Ignorance” is a loaded term. It evokes thoughts of insensitivity, denseness and shallowness. His advice to continually “assess one’s own ignorance” sounds a bit demeaning, but it’s key to the process. It’s not a natural state for most of us due to some obvious and some not-so-obvious reasons.

Why It’s Hard to Do

Not only does U.S. culture value “telling” over “asking” — Mr. Schein points out we also value getting things done over building relationships. Time spent getting to know colleagues or direct reports is often viewed as wasted time since it takes away from completing tasks. And we are not growing more tolerant — the faster information technology becomes, the more impatient we get.

The other problem involves the impact of status. As a person moves up the corporate ranks, there’s a tacit assumption they should know more than the people who report to them. Asking questions of subordinates is often seen as a sign of weakness. On the flip side, underlings assume it’s not their place to speak up. If a leader doesn’t consciously invite feedback and dialogue then people remain silent.

The problem is that no one person has all the knowledge. Since today’s workplaces are constantly increasing in technological complexity, leaders require timely input from all levels. If they don’t ask questions, they don’t build relationships and without strengthening those interdependencies leaders are less likely to hear what they need to know.

So — we are impatient with the “getting-to-know-you” stuff since it delays accomplishments, but it turns out to be the essential ingredient to getting work done. The leader’s job is to use Humble Inquiry to make subordinates feel safe. Only by building mutual trust and reinforcing the fact that it’s okay to speak up will leaders get the information they need to make good decisions.

The Human Brain and Inquiry

Another paradox we live with is that whereas we are dying for others to tell us “where they see us as wanting or imperfect, so that we can improve” — we are reluctant to give anyone feedback out of fear that we “humiliate or offend” them. The author recommends a way out of this “cultural straightjacket” — reveal something personal about ourselves. Again, the goal is to make it safe for people to have meaningful exchanges.

The goal is to make it safe for people to have meaningful exchanges.

The other reality about our brains is that “what we see and hear and how we react to things are partly driven by our needs and expectations.” We unconsciously make judgements and misperceptions which drive knee-jerk reactions. The trick is to ask yourself, “what am I feeling” before reacting and use inquiry to better understand the situation. “The time where Humble Inquiry is often most needed is when we observe something that makes us angry or anxious.”

The time where Humble Inquiry is often most needed is when we observe something that makes us angry or anxious.

How to Humbly Inquire

Mr. Schein points out three domains for Humble Inquiry:

  1. Personal Life: Dealing with diversity in our social lives
  2. Organizations: Identifying interdependencies and needs for collaboration
  3. Role as Leader: Creating relationships that make it safe to get work done

In all three domains, the message is “make time for chats.” Use Humble Inquiry to build relationships. But Humble Inquiry is not natural to most of us, and he acknowledges we have competing “anxieties” when it comes to learning a new skill. “Survival Anxiety” makes us want to learn the skills we need to succeed, but “Learning Anxiety” makes us feel incompetent which we work to avoid. To overcome our fear of incompetence we need time to practice and get comfortable.

His main recommendation is to take the time. “The learning stage where a relationship is being built requires slowing down and building trust, but once the relationship has been built, work actually gets done much faster.” Another great recommendation is to practice Humble Inquiry on ourselves. Before jumping into action mode — ask yourself a series of questions:

  1. “What is going on here?”
  2. “What would be the appropriate thing to do?”
  3. “What am I thinking and feeling and wanting?”
  4. “On whom am I dependent?”
  5. “Who is dependent on me?”
  6. “With whom do I need to build a relationship in order to improve communications?”

Feeling has been removed from most workplace discussions although it’s driving our behavior just the same. The idea of taking a moment to check our own feelings is a great habit to build. It sets the stage for smarter planning and discovery. Without it we operate on assumptions, biases and preconceptions. Any problem solver can relate to the need for data to make the right decisions. Humble Inquiry is the way to collect that data and make those discoveries by connecting with and understanding other human beings.

The idea of taking a moment to check our own feelings is a great habit to build. It sets the stage for smarter planning and discovery.

This book is a must read. There’s great background on why we do what we do, but the beauty part is that we can change simply by asking questions. And the rewards are immediate. Once we start using Humble Inquiry we find out there are people at all levels ready to give us critical information. It’s liberating to figure out we don’t have to do it all by ourselves. Do a better job, keep people safer and build a better workplace. Stay humble!

About the Author:

Edgar Schein is Professor Emeritus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Sloan School of Management. He was educated at the University of Chicago, Stanford University, and Harvard University, where he received his Ph.D. in Social Psychology. He worked at the Walter Reed Institute of Research for four years and then joined MIT, where he taught until 2005. He has published over 25 books and Humble Inquiry won the 2013 business book of the year award from the Department of Leadership of San Diego University.

His latest release, co-authored with his son Peter A. Schein, is Humble Leadership which proposes a new way of thinking about leadership based on relationships, openness and trust, challenging traditional notions of hierarchy, “professional distance” and transactional leadership.

Mr. Schein is the 2009 recipient of the Distinguished Scholar-Practitioner Award of the Academy of Management, the 2012 recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Leadership Association, the 2015 Lifetime Achievement Award in Organization Development from the International OD Network, and has an Honorary Doctorate from the IEDC Bled School of Management in Slovenia.

Practical Tools and Concepts Covered:

  • Inquiry
  • Conversations
  • Organizational Culture
  • Feedback
  • Listening
  • Relationship Building

Who Should Read Humble Inquiry?

From the Page:

“All of us find ourselves from time to time in situations that require innovation and some risk taking. Some of us are formal leaders; most of us just have leadership thrust upon us from time to time by the situation we find ourselves in. The ultimate challenge is for you to discover that at those moments you should not succumb to telling, but to take charge with Humble Inquiry.”


Check out our Amazingly Awesome List for more book reviews as well as a comprehensive list of Lean Six Sigma and process improvement books!

Elisabeth Swan

Elisabeth is a Managing Partner at GoLeanSixSigma.com, the co-author of The Problem-Solver’s Toolkit and co-host of the Just-in-Time Cafe. For over 25 years, she's helped leading organizations like Amazon, Charles Schwab and Starwood Hotels & Resorts build problem-solving muscles with Lean Six Sigma to achieve their goals.