Just finished reading the excellent book Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling by Edgar H. Schein. The author is a Professor of Management Emeritus at the MIT Sloan School of Management, and a recognized expert on organizational cultures and leadership. Schein maintains that organizations can’t improve their “cultures” and leaders can’t really lead effectively unless there is more of an emphasis on asking, as opposed to just telling.
And according to Schein, there’s a particular need for “humble inquiry,” which he defines as “the skill and the 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.”
This resonates with me and it’s in line with something I’ve been saying during my talks at various companies and schools, when I’ve been asked, “What makes a question a good question?” It can be hard to answer that specifically, but one thing I do believe is that the best questions are rooted in curiosity—that’s what makes a question authentic. (Re: “what makes a good question,” read my related post: “8 Ways to Improve a Question.”)
As Schein notes, many of us fail to distinguish these honest, open, vulnerable, curiosity-driven questions from various other kinds of questions that are less humble: “leading questions, rhetorical questions, embarrassing questions, or statements in the form of questions—such as journalists seem to love— which are deliberately provocative and intended to put you down.”
“We fail to notice how often even our questions are just another form of telling—rhetorical or just testing whether what we think is right,” Schein writes. “We are biased toward telling instead of asking because we live in a pragmatic, problem-solving culture in which knowing things and telling others what we know is valued.”
The best way to get information from others
I really like the term “humble inquiry,” because it serves to remind us that good questioning often requires that we set aside ego. In his book, Schein points out that it can be particularly difficult for leaders to ask the questions they should be asking of their colleagues and employees—because many leaders believe their role is to tell people what to do. Asking questions is almost seen as beneath them. Leaders who would embrace humble inquiry may need to shift away from that attitude and admit they actually need information from others, including those who are lower than them on the organizational chart. And the best way to get that information is to show real interest in people, as expressed through genuine questions.
That’s not easy to do and some leaders might wonder, Why do I need to do it? In a recent interview, Schein explained: “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.”
I’ve talked in my book and in this blog about “appreciative inquiry,” which has to do with framing questions in a more positive, strengths-based manner. I think humble inquiry is in some sense a cousin to appreciative inquiry; related but separate. Both concepts, I believe, can be critical in helping an organization’s leaders—and really, everyone throughout the organization—to ask better, more productive, more beautiful questions.