The Case for Humble Inquiry

“Humble Inquiry is the skill & art of drawing someone out, of asking questions to which you do not already know the answer, of building a relationship based on curiosity & interest in the other person.”  ~ Edgar H. Schein


Doing and telling are valued more in western, industrialised societies than asking and relationship building.  We hire and promote people who can get the job done. Asking for help and admitting that you don’t know are considered taboos to striving and ambitious people.

However, one quality of great leaders that comes out consistently close to the top in studies of leadership is the ability to master ‘humble inquiry’. Leaders who ask questions, who do not pretend to know answers, and who recognise that their people are the real experts, inevitably command greater respect and are considered to be more effective leaders.


And why should this be so? Well, consider the charismatic, know-it-all boss who operates by telling. They may command a type of respect, possibly grounded in fear or concerns of inadequacy.  But, will people be prepared to approach them with problems, issues or concerns?  If relationships have not been established that make it easy for people to share problems, there is a danger that critical information could be withheld, even safety critical or life-and-death information may be held back.

Sadly, much of our received wisdom on leadership has emerged from a culture that espouses teamwork, collaboration and relationship-building as critical for success, but the day to day realities of our hiring, promotion and rewards systems, values individualism, winning and ‘getting the job done’ more. Task accomplishment still trumps relationship building. ‘Short-term-wins’ beat long term sustained success.

Edgar H. Schein, in his very readable book on Humble Inquiry, once asked a group of management students what it meant to them to be promoted into a ‘management’ position. They answered, “It means I can now tell others what to do”. As anyone who has been promoted into management positions will be able to tell you, they do not waken up on the first morning of taking on the new job suddenly “knowing what to do”.

The literature is littered with examples of disasters, accidents and loss of human life where lower-ranking employees possessed information that would have prevented or reduced the impact of the tragedy.  Cultures and leadership styles have prevented that information from being shared or acted upon, sometimes because they did not feel safe bringing bad news, and sometimes because they did, but it was ignored.  See previous post Don’t Give Me Bad News.

The more complex and intellectually challenging that business problems become, the greater the danger of withheld information.  As our businesses and organisations become ever-more global, IT dependent, multi-cultural and cutting-edge, the greater the need for interdependence, collaboration and a culture where it is ‘safe’ for all people to ask and inquire of each other, regardless of status or position. Leaders have a duty to adopt an approach of genuine openness, where every voice is valued and listened to.  This starts with them adopting a ‘humble inquiry’ style, rooted in true humility, incisive questioning and active listening.


How do you feel if someone holds back from you?  Would you prefer to be given an opportunity to improve, or to remain part of a ‘conspiracy of silence’?  

To learn more about how you or your teams can build skill in this area, and create a working environment built on constructive conversations, please do get in touch. Simply submit some basic details through the Contact Us page. I will be delighted to discuss further with you.

About the author: Louis Collins enables people to operate more successfully. You may be struggling to implement corporate strategy, you may want to get more productivity out of yourself or your teams but don’t know where to start, or you may not be having as effective conversations as you could be. I will work with you to enable you to formulate more effective ways of leading, to raise awareness of blockers to successful ways of working, and ultimately to help you and your managers to lead more successfully.


1 thought on “The Case for Humble Inquiry

  1. Pingback: Mining for Treasure | Gyro Consulting Services

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s