Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling

Coach's Note: If you can learn humble inquiry over 'telling', you open up a world of knowledge and discovery that leads to far higher organizational performance. It's the new way to lead. But, it takes guts. Can you do it?

The idea that the manager might come to a subordinate and ask, "What should we do?" would be considered abdication, failure to fulfill your role.

I once asked a group of management students what it meant to them to be promoted to "manager." They said without hesitation:

"It means I can now tell others what to do."

Accessing your ignorance, or allowing curiosity to lead you, is often the best guide to what to ask about.

I was invited to Shell Australia. At a senior management lunch, the CEO announced the VP of administration was leaving.

Peter, the primary candidate, seemed like a perfectly OK candidate to promote, what did the others think?

The VPs looked visibly nervous

Several of the VPs seemed to like Peter but could not resolve giving him the job. Curious, I asked: “What does the VP of administration do?” (Humble Inquiry)

I got a few patronizing smiles. But then they decided to take the time to answer the question. “He has finance, accounting, personnel, public relations—

At this moment one of VPs said that it was in Public Relations that Peter had problems. And then one of them asked, “Does PR have to be part of this job? With all the new environmental issues we should just have a VP of just PR?” (Humble Inquiry plus suggestion).

The group agreed immediately to separate out PR and then agreed further that Peter was perfect for the other functions. Problem solved.

We take it for granted that telling is more valued than asking

Humble Inquiry is not a checklist to follow or a set of prewritten questions—it is behavior that comes out of respect, genuine curiosity, and the desire to improve the quality of the conversation by stimulating greater openness and the sharing of task-relevant information.

Humble Inquiry... Builds Work Relations

Telling puts the other person down. It implies that the other person does not know what I am telling and that the other person ought to.

On the other hand, asking temporarily empowers the other person in the conversation and temporarily makes me vulnerable. Showing genuine interest and curiosity implies a desire to build a relationship.

It is hard for some leaders to publicly humble themselves. But if a leader were to, for example, have lunch with their subordinate staff, they would empower their subordinates to be more open.

Humble Inquiry Gets Information You'd Never Otherwise See

Making yourself vulnerable will elicit a more personal conversation, and through successive rounds of asking, telling, and acknowledging, trust and openness will build to the point where you can ask the difficult question:

“If I am about to make a mistake, will you tell me?”

You can then assess whether you have achieved the climate of psychological safety in which all of you will help each other and communicate openly. If it still feels uncomfortable, you can humbly ask:

“What do we need to do differently to get to that point of perpetual, mutual help?”

Extracts copyright Edgar H. Schein, arranged for the Hub by Phil Dourado.

Real-time development of your leaders. Just in time.

Learn how