Humble Inquiry

The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling

Edgar Schein (Author)

Publication date: 09/02/2013

Bestseller over 60,000+ copies sold

Humble Inquiry
Communication is essential in a healthy organization. But all too often when we interact with people—especially those who report to us—we simply tell them what we think they need to know. This shuts them down. To generate bold new ideas, to avoid disastrous mistakes, to develop agility and flexibility, we need to practice Humble Inquiry.

Ed Schein defines Humble Inquiry as “the fine art of drawing someone out, of asking questions to which you do not know the answer, of building a relationship based on curiosity and interest in the other person.” In this seminal work, Schein contrasts Humble Inquiry with other kinds of inquiry, shows the benefits Humble Inquiry provides in many different settings, and offers advice on overcoming the cultural, organizational, and psychological barriers that keep us from practicing it.

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Communication is essential in a healthy organization. But all too often when we interact with people—especially those who report to us—we simply tell them what we think they need to know. This shuts them down. To generate bold new ideas, to avoid disastrous mistakes, to develop agility and flexibility, we need to practice Humble Inquiry.

Ed Schein defines Humble Inquiry as “the fine art of drawing someone out, of asking questions to which you do not know the answer, of building a relationship based on curiosity and interest in the other person.” In this seminal work, Schein contrasts Humble Inquiry with other kinds of inquiry, shows the benefits Humble Inquiry provides in many different settings, and offers advice on overcoming the cultural, organizational, and psychological barriers that keep us from practicing it.

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Meet the Author

Visit Author Page - Edgar Schein


My newest book, Humble Leadership, which was co-authored with my son Peter, brings together 50 years of work on culture and leadership. After undergraduate training at the University of Chicago and Stanford, my Ph.D. training at Harvard’s Department of Social Relations in the early 1950s was as an experimental social psychologist. I then spent four years at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research and began a gradual process of becoming more interested in the sociological details of what goes on between people in various kinds of relationships.

My first major research was on the indoctrination of military and civilian prisoners of the Chinese Communists (Coercive Persuasion, 1961), which led to an examination of such indoctrination in large corporations when I became a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management in 1956. It seemed obvious to then study the process of interaction of the individual with the organization, which led to the successful coauthored book, Interpersonal Dynamics (coauthored with Warren Bennis, Fritz Steele, David Berlew, and later John Van Maanen, 3rd ed. 1973) and later, an integrated text that helped to define the field (Organizational Psychology, 3rd ed. 1980).

Through a 15-year panel study, the indoctrination and socialization research led to the discovery that in an open society, like the United States, individuals will exercise choices and be able to shape their careers around strong self-images or “career anchors” (Career Dynamics, 1978; Career Anchors, 4th ed. coauthored with John Van Maanen, 2013).

Working with Group Dynamics workshops in Bethel, Maine and consulting with Digital Equipment Corporation led to the concept of process consultation and the important discovery that the best path to helping people learn is to ask the right questions and let them figure it out. I first spelled this out in 1969, as a contribution to consultation methodology (Process Consultation, 1969; Process Consultation Revisited, 1999), and found that it applies in many interpersonal situations, especially when we try to give or receive help.

All of these processes happen within a culture, so a more detailed study of organizational and occupational cultures led to intensive work on corporate culture—how to think about it, how to change it, and how to relate culture to other aspects of organizational performance. With Organizational Culture and Leadership (5th ed. with Peter Schein, 2017) and The Corporate Culture Survival Guide (2nd ed. 2009), I helped to define the field.

The role of leaders as both creators and, ultimately, victims of culture led to more detailed analyses of interpersonal processes and to two empirical studies of organizational cultures—Strategic Pragmatism: The Culture of Singapore’s Economic Development Board (1996) and DEC Is Dead, Long Live DEC: The Lasting Legacy of Digital Equipment Corporation (2003).

The years of consulting, teaching, and coaching inevitably led to the realization that some processes such as Helping were not well understood and often poorly practiced. The book Helping: How to Offer, Give, and Receive Help (2009) was thus an attempt to both analyze and improve that process. Within that analysis, I realized Humble Inquiry is not just necessary when we give or receive help, but it is a more general form of asking that builds relationships. I realized further that building positive relationships is at the core of effective communication and getting work done safely and well.

Building personal relationships has to be done rapidly in this fast paced world, so I wrote Humble Consulting (2016) to illustrate how this has worked in my own consulting. My son and I then realized that, together, we could collect these ideas into a book on leadership that dealt with the current realities of complexity and the need for more collaboration through highlighting the importance of building personal relationships in organizations and working more effectively with groups.


Ed has been recognized for his work with the Lifetime Achievement Award in Workplace Learning and Performance from the American Society of Training Directors (2000), the Everett Cherington Hughes Award for Career Scholarship from the Careers Division of the Academy of Management (2000), the Marion Gislason Award for Leadership in Executive Development from the Boston University School of Management Executive Development Roundtable (2002), the Lifetime Achievement Award as Scholar/ Practitioner from the Academy of Management (2009), and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Leadership Association (2012).

After 48 years at MIT and losing his wife in 2008, Ed moved to Palo Alto in 2011, where he is retired but still writing. He has three children and seven grandchildren who live in Seattle, New Jersey, and Menlo Park, California. You can reach him via his e-mail at [email protected]

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Table of Contents

Introduction: Creating Positive Relationships and Effective Organizations

1 Humble Inquiry
2 Humble Inquiry in Practice—Case Examples
3 Differentiating Humble Inquiry from Other Kinds of Inquiry
4 The Culture of Do and Tell
5 Status, Rank, and Role Boundaries as Inhibitors
6 Forces Inside Us as Inhibitors
7 Developing the Attitude of Humble Inquiry

About the Author
Author Awards

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Humble Inquiry

Introduction: Creating Positive Relationships and Effective Organizations

The motivation to write this book is personal and professional. On the personal level, I have never liked being told things gratuitously, especially things I already know.

The other day I was admiring an unusual bunch of mushrooms that had grown after a heavy rain when a lady walking her dog chose to stop and tell me in a loud voice, “Some of those are poisonous, you know.” I replied, “I know,” to which she added, “Some of them can kill you, you know.”

What struck me was how her need to tell not only made it difficult to respond in a positive manner, but it also offended me. I realized that her tone and her telling approach prevented the building of a positive relationship and made further communication awkward. Her motivation might have been to help me, yet I found it unhelpful and wished that she had asked me a question, either at the beginning or after I said “I know,” instead of trying to tell me something more.

Why is it so important to learn to ask better questions that help to build positive relationships? Because in an increasingly complex, interdependent, and culturally diverse world, we cannot hope to understand and work with people from different occupational, professional, and national cultures if we do not know how to ask questions and build relationships that are based on mutual respect and the recognition that others know things that we may need to know in order to get a job done.

But not all questions are equivalent. I have come to believe that we need to learn a particular form of questioning that I first called “Humble Inquiry” in my book on Helping (2009), and that can be defined as follows:

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.

The professional motivation to explore Humble Inquiry more extensively comes from the insights I have gained over the past fifty years of consulting with various kinds of organizations. Especially in the high hazard industries in which the problems of safety are paramount, I have learned that good relations and reliable communication across hierarchic boundaries are crucial. In airplane crashes and chemical industry accidents, in the infrequent but serious nuclear plant accidents, in the NASA Challenger and Columbia disasters, and in the British Petroleum gulf spill, a common finding is that lower-ranking employees had information that would have prevented or lessened the consequences of the accident, but either it was not passed up to higher levels, or it was ignored, or it was overridden. When I talk to senior managers, they always assure me that they are open, that they want to hear from their subordinates, and that they take the information seriously. However, when I talk to the subordinates in those same organizations, they tell me either they do not feel safe bringing bad news to their bosses or they’ve tried but never got any response or even acknowledgment, so they concluded that their input wasn’t welcome and gave up. Shockingly often, they settled for risky alternatives rather than upset their bosses with potentially bad news.

When I look at what goes on in hospitals, in operating rooms, and in the health care system generally, I find the same problems of communication exist and that patients frequently pay the price. Nurses and technicians do not feel safe bringing negative information to doctors or correcting a doctor who is about to make a mistake. Doctors will argue that if the others were “professionals” they would speak up, but in many a hospital the nurses will tell you that doctors feel free to yell at nurses in a punishing way, which creates a climate where nurses will certainly not speak up. Doctors engage patients in one-way conversations in which they ask only enough questions to make a diagnosis and sometimes make misdiagnoses because they don’t ask enough questions before they begin to tell patients what they should do.

It struck me that what is missing in all of these situations is a climate in which lower-level employees feel safe to bring up issues that need to be addressed, information that would reduce the likelihood of accidents, and, in health care, mistakes that harm patients. How does one produce a climate in which people will speak up, bring up information that is safety related, and even correct superiors or those of higher status when they are about to make a mistake?

The answer runs counter to some important aspects of U.S. culture— we must become better at asking and do less telling in a culture that overvalues telling. It has always bothered me how even ordinary conversations tend to be defined by what we tell rather than by what we ask. Questions are taken for granted rather than given a starring role in the human drama. Yet all my teaching and consulting experience has taught me that what builds a relationship, what solves problems, what moves things forward is asking the right questions. In particular, it is the higher-ranking leaders who must learn the art of Humble Inquiry as a first step in creating a climate of openness.

I learned early in my consulting that getting questioning right was more important than giving recommendations or advice and wrote about that in my books on Process Consultation. 1 I then realized that giving and receiving help also worked best when the helper asked some questions before giving advice or jumping in with solutions. So I wrote about the importance of asking in my book Helping. 2

I now realize that the issue of asking versus telling is really a fundamental issue in human relations, and that it applies to all of us all the time. What we choose to ask, when we ask, what our underlying attitude is as we ask—all are key to relationship building, to communication, and to task performance.

Building relationships between humans is a complex process. The mistakes we make in conversations and the things we think we should have said after the conversation is over all reflect our own confusion about the balancing of asking and telling, and our automatic bias toward telling. The missing ingredients in most conversations are curiosity and willingness to ask questions to which we do not already know the answer.

It is time to take a look at this form of questioning and examine its role in a wide variety of situations, from ordinary conversations to complex-task performances, such as a surgical team performing an open-heart operation. In a complex and interdependent world, more and more tasks are like a seesaw or a relay race. We tout teamwork and use lots of different athletic analogies, but I chose the seesaw and the relay race to make the point that often it is necessary for everyone to do their part. For everyone to do their part appropriately requires good communication; good communication requires building a trusting relationship; and building a trusting relationship requires Humble Inquiry.

This book is for the general reader, but it has special significance for people in leadership roles because the art of questioning becomes more difficult as status increases. Our culture emphasizes that leaders must be wiser, set direction, and articulate values, all of which predisposes them to tell rather than ask. Yet it is leaders who will need Humble Inquiry most because complex interdependent tasks will require building positive, trusting relationships with subordinates to facilitate good upward communication. And without good upward communication, organizations can be neither effective nor safe.

About this book

In this book I will first define and explain what I mean by Humble Inquiry in Chapter 1. To fully understand humility, it is helpful to differentiate three kinds of humility: 1) the humility that we feel around elders and dignitaries; 2) the humility that we feel in the presence of those who awe us with their achievements; and 3) Here-and-now Humility, which results from our being dependent from time to time on someone else in order to accomplish a task that we are committed to. This will strike some readers as academic hairsplitting, but it is the recognition of this third type of humility that is the key to Humble Inquiry and to the building of positive relationships.

To fully explain Humble Inquiry, Chapter 2 will provide a number of short case examples, and Chapter 3 will discuss how this form of questioning is different from other kinds of questions that one may ask.

Chapter 4 will discuss why it is difficult to engage in Humble Inquiry in the kind of task-oriented culture we live in. I label this a “Culture of Do and Tell” and argue that not only do we value telling more than asking, but we also value doing more than relating and thereby reduce our capacity and desire to form relationships. Chapter 5 argues that the higher we are in status, the more difficult it becomes to engage in Humble Inquiry while, at the same time, it becomes more important for leaders to learn how to be humble from time to time. Not only do norms and assumptions in our culture make Humble Inquiry difficult, but the complexity of our human brain and the complexity of social relationships also create some constraints and difficulties, which I discuss in Chapter 6.

Finally, in Chapter 7, I provide some suggestions for how we can increase our ability and desire to engage in more Humble Inquiry.

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“An invaluable guide for a consultant trying to understand and untangle system and interpersonal knots. Written with a beguiling simplicity and clarity, it is laden with wisdom and practicality.”  
—Irvin Yalom, MD, Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry, Stanford University

“The lessons contained in this deceptively simple book reach beyond the author's experience gained from a lifetime of consultation to organizations of all sizes and shapes. It provides life lessons for us all. If, as a result of reading this book, you begin to practice the art of humble asking, you will have taken an important step toward living wisely.”
—Samuel Jay Keyser, Peter de Florez Professor Emeritus, MIT

“This book seriously challenges leaders to re-examine the emphasis on task orientation and ‘telling' subordinates how best to do their jobs. Humble Inquiry increases organizational capacity to learn more from cross-cultural teamwork, reduces stress, and increases organizational engagement and productivity.”
—Jyotsna Sanzgiri, MBA, PhD, Professor, California School of Professional Psychology, Alliant International University

“This book is particularly important for leaders who in these complex times need advice and tools for building trust in their relationships with subordinates individually or in teams.”
—Danica Purg, President, IEDC-Bled School of Management, Bled, Slovenia

“This book is an exercise in inquiry by a recognized master of humble insight.”
—Art Kleiner, Editor-in-Chief, Booz & Company/strategy+business

“Ed Schein has provided a new and thoughtful reframing of interpersonal dynamics through the notion of Humble Inquiry. This short book is packed with insights as Schein rigorously explores the impact of his ideas in his usually clear and readable style.”
—Michael Brimm, Professor of Organizational Behavior, INSEAD Europe

Humble Inquiry is an elegant treatment of how to go about building and sustaining solid, trusting relationships in or out of the workplace. A masterful take on a critical human skill too infrequently practiced.”
—John Van Maanen, Erwin Schell Professor of Management and Professor of Organization Studies, MIT

“A fast read and full of insight! Schein uses stories from his personal life and his successful career as a process consultant that pointedly ask, ‘How willing are you to cast aside hierarchy? How personal are you willing to be?' Considering the cultural, occupational, generational, and gender communication barriers we face every day,
Humble Inquiry proposes a very practical, nonthreatening approach to bridging those gaps and increasing the mutual understanding that leads to operational excellence.”
—Rosa Antonia Carrillo, MSOD, safety leadership consultant

“A remarkably valuable guide for anyone interested in leading more effectively and building strong relationships. Ed Schein presents vivid examples grounded in a lifetime of experience as husband, father, teacher, administrator, and consultant.”
—Robert B. McKersie, Professor Emeritus, Sloan School of Management, MIT

“Ed Schein has an eye for bold yet subtle insights into the big picture and a knack for writing about them clearly.
Humble Inquiry—like his previous book Helping—shows that he is equally talented at bringing fresh thinking to well-trodden ground.”
—Grady McGonagill, EdD, Principal, McGonagill Consulting

“What did I gain from reading
Humble Inquiry? I became more aware of the subtle but powerful ways we affect each other as we talk and how the right kind of questions can dramatically improve the quality and efficiency of communication, with benefits that range from increased patient safety and satisfaction to employee motivation and morale to organizational performance. You can't afford to not know about this.”
—Anthony Suchman, MD, MA, University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry

“With the world as his classroom, Ed Schein continues to guide us through modern day chaos with the powerful behaviors of
Helping and Humble Inquiry. This is a must-read for anyone who truly wishes to achieve important goals!”
—Marjorie M. Godfrey, Codirector, The Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy & Clinical Practice Microsystem Academy

“I have had the privilege of working with Ed Schein. Reading Humble Inquiry I could hear his voice asking me those humble questions that joined us in a mutual search for the answer. His book distills what he has learned and practiced in a lifetime of helping high-powered leaders be even more successful.”
 —Anthony F. Earley, Jr., Chairman, CEO and President, PG&E Corporation

“Schein helps us understand the importance of transcending hierarchy and authority to build authentic relationships predicated on trust and respect. Humble iInquiry is a powerful approach to building safe environments for our people and, ultimately, our patients.”
—Gary S. Kaplan MD, Chairman and CEO, Virginia Mason Health System

“Quiet wisdom from an expert, enlivened by personal examples. Insightful and easy to read, it made me look again at my own behavior in my relationships, both at work and in the home.”
—Charles Handy

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