Developing the Attitude of Humble Inquiry

When conversations go wrong, when our best advice is ignored, when we get upset with the advice that others give us, when our subordinates fail to tell us things that would improve matters or avoid pitfalls, when discussions turn into arguments that end in stalemates and hurt feelings–what went wrong and what could have been done to get better outcomes?

A vivid example came from one of my executive students in the MIT Sloan Program, who was studying for his important finance exam in his basement study. He had explicitly instructed his six-year-old daughter not to interrupt him. He was deep into his work when a knock on the door announced the arrival of his daughter. He said sharply, “I thought I told you not to interrupt me.” The little girl burst into tears and ran off. The next morning his wife berated him for upsetting the daughter. He defended himself vigorously until she interrupted and said, “I sent her down to you to say goodnight and ask you if you wanted a cup of coffee to help with your studying. Why did you yell at her instead of asking her why she was there?”

How can we do better? The answer is simple, but the implementation is not. We would have to do three things: 1) do less telling; 2) learn to do more asking in the particular form of Humble Inquiry; and 3) do a better job of listening and acknowledging. 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.

Yet what we ask and the particular form in which we ask it–what I describe as 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.

The skills of Asking in general and Humble Inquiry in particular will be needed in three broad domains: 1) in your personal life, to enable you to deal with increasing cultural diversity in all aspects of work and social life; 2) in organizations, to identify needs for collaboration among interdependent work units and to facilitate such collaboration; and 3) in your role as leader or manager, to create the relationships and the climate that will promote the open communication needed for safe and effective task performance.

The attitudes and behaviors required in each of these three areas are to some degree countercultural and will, therefore, require some unlearning and new learning. In particular, some broadening of perception and insight will be needed to help you identify when and where you might do less telling and more asking.

In the recent and very timely book Dancing at the Edge, the authors propose that to live in the 21st century will require a new kind of human being, one that is more conscious of self, more social, more culturally wise, and more innovative in taking action.1 They further propose that all of us already have the capacities for the personal growth that will be needed. I concur with this point of view and believe we are all able to be more humble and more inquiring. So what are we to do?

The Two Anxieties of Unlearning and New Learning

Learning new things is easy when there is no unlearning involved. But if the new learning, the attitude of Humble Inquiry, has to displace some old habits of Telling, two anxieties come into play that have to be managed. What I call survival anxiety is the realization that unless we learn the new behavior, we will be at a disadvantage. Survival anxiety provides the motivation to learn. But as we confront the learning task and develop new attitudes and behavior, we realize it may be difficult, or we may not want to tolerate the period of incompetence while we learn, or our friends may not understand or welcome our new behavior. Anticipating all these potential difficulties is learning anxiety and causes resistance to change. As long as learning anxiety remains stronger than survival anxiety, we will resist change and avoid learning.

One might argue then that in order to learn, one must increase survival anxiety, but this only increases our overall tension. To facilitate new learning, we need to decrease learning anxiety. We have to feel that the new behavior is worthwhile, that it is possible to learn, that there will be guidance, coaching, and support to get us started, and that there will be opportunities to practice. If what we are learning is somewhat countercultural, we have to provide those supports ourselves. So what might be some ways of supporting ourselves in the process of learning to be more humble and more inquiring?

Slow Down and Vary the Pace

Let’s go back to the relay race example: when you start your lap, it is appropriate to run as fast as possible. But when you enter the baton passing area, you have to decelerate, reach out with the baton, wait until it is firmly grasped, and then jog off to rest and prepare for the next race. The person to whom you passed the baton must start accelerating in coordination with your decelerating, stick out his or her hand, wait for the baton to be handed over, grasp it firmly and then run as fast as possible until the next baton passing area. The culture of Do and Tell does not teach us how to change pace, decelerate, take stock of what we are doing, observe ourselves and others, try new behaviors, build new relationships.

In my personal life, especially as I am aging, I find that the biggest mistakes I make and the biggest risks I run all result from mindless hurrying. More importantly, if I hurry, I do not observe new possibilities. Learning Humble Inquiry is not learning how to run faster but how to slow down in order to make sure that I have observed carefully and taken full stock of situational reality. It’s making sure that the baton pass is successful. In the rapid pace of work, can we take brief time outs, make time for coffee breaks, or chat at the water cooler or copying machine and engage in a little Humble Inquiry at those moments?

If successful task accomplishment requires building a new relationship with a colleague on whom I will be dependent, how long will that actually take? Personalizing the relationship, doing something informal together such as meeting for lunch or dinner need not be a big time consuming production. The essential act of Humble Inquiry is in bringing [colleagues] together and getting interested in them as people before asking them to help create a good climate of communication. It need not take much time, but it takes a different pace. Any leader can do that.

Reflect More and Ask Yourself Humble Inquiry Questions

In our task-oriented impatient culture of Do and Tell, the most important thing to learn is how to reflect. We won’t know when it is essential to be humble and when it is appropriate to tell unless we get better at assessing the nature of the situation we are in, what the present state of our relationships with others is, and, most important, what is going on in our own head and heart. One way to learn to reflect is to apply Humble Inquiry to ourselves. Before leaping into action, we can ask ourselves: What is going on here? What would be the appropriate thing to do? What am I thinking and feeling and wanting? If the task is to be accomplished effectively and safely, it will be especially important to answer these questions: On whom am I dependent? Who is dependent on me? With whom do I need to build a relationship in order to improve communication?

Become More Mindful

Reflection implies becoming more mindful. The best way to explain Ellen Langer’s important concept of mindfulness is through recounting my eye-opening experience with her.2 One summer at Cape Cod my son’s little girl Stephanie cut her head on a glass table. There were no doctors immediately available so we had to get in the car and drive for a couple of hours to the nearest hospital. We waited for another hour, got the cut stitched up, drove two hours back to our cottage, and finally got to bed at two a.m. The next morning my wife Mary and I met Ellen at the Provincetown tennis courts and told her about our awful evening. She gave us a long look and asked, “Well, what else was happening all this time?” We were blank for the moment but she pursued with, “As I understand it, you were with your granddaughter from eight p.m. to two a.m. What else was happening all this time?” And then our fog lifted. In the car and during all of this waiting time Stephanie had been cheerful, chatty, and delightful. We had had six quality hours with her and had let our self-pity about the late hour wipe out savoring this great experience.

What Ellen reminded us of was that we take in a great deal of data, but our tendency to leap to judgment prevents us from reflecting on most of it. So her question, “What else is happening?” should become an important mantra not only for reflecting but also for instant assessment of situations that we are entering. Humble Inquiry presumes accurate assessment of the situation, so asking ourselves what else is happening is essential. Paradoxically this involves learning to be humble with respect to ourselves–to honor our human capacity to take in and deal with complexity, to have a broad range of experiences, and to be agile in responding to those experiences.

Try Innovating and Engage the Artist Within You

Becoming reflective and broadening our capacity to see and feel more is difficult because culture does script us to such a high degree. To break out of these scripts we need to engage the arts and our own artistic impulses. Artists learn to expand themselves–to see more, to feel more, to do more. In the case of theater and acting, they learn through trying on new roles. In the case of painting, they learn the discipline of seeing accurately what is out there before they try to render it. They learn new theory in working with color and learn new motor skills in wielding a pencil or a brush. The impact of this was brought home to me when I attended a watercolor class for a group of unemployed, previously homeless, and drifting adults. I watched how these twelve people grew in front of my eyes as they were instructed to do simple brushstrokes and witnessed their own ability to put paint on paper and have it look like something.

Doing something artistic expands mind and body. It is not about whether it is any good or not; it is about trying something really new that is ego expanding. I think there is an artist in every one of us, but we don’t honor the creative part of ourselves enough. A well-timed Humble Inquiry that launches a conversation that leads to a relationship should be thought of as a thing of beauty. Innovations in how we conduct conversations should be treated as art. In a strategy meeting of 70 health care executives, my colleague, Ilene Wasserman, was asked to create an event that would get these executives into some kind of relationship with each other in order to implement the new plan. She divided them into random pairs and gave the instructions that when they had sat down together, either one should start by saying, “So … what about you … ?” Brilliant and artistic.

Nothing is more stultifying than running a meeting by Robert’s Rules of Order and to impose the political process of majority rule on small working groups where total commitment is needed. When I opened the meeting of my task force on the capital campaign by asking each member to tell us why he or she belonged to this organization, this turned into a conversation that was beautiful. It amazes me how often a low-key question along the lines of “How do each of you feel about the direction we are going in?” produces far better decisions than motions, seconds, and votes. There is growing recognition that the complex work of today is better likened to improvisation theater and jazz bands than to formal bureaucratic models of organization. There is no substitute for doing something creative even if it is only doodling, keeping a journal, or writing meaningful letters to friends and relatives. Even e-mails can be beautiful, and blogs are clearly drawing on our artistic sense.

Review and Reflect on Your Own Behavior After an Event

If you learn to slow down, vary your pace, and become more mindful and creative, you will also have time for a particular form of reflection, which is to review and analyze something that you have just done. Effective groups review their decisions to see what can be learned. When the army does maneuvers, it does an after-action review in a deliberate attempt to get feedback from everyone regardless of rank. Hospitals hold special meetings to review cases, especially when things go wrong.

The power of a process review period is that the boss can suspend the cultural rules of deference and ask even the lowest-ranking people in the group to speak frankly about their perceptions of what has gone on. In those reviews, Humble Inquiry is the primary form of question to elicit accurate information from everyone. The review ends with a listing of what everyone learned. As the questions at the end of the chapters suggest, you should keep such a list for yourself based on your own review of your behavior.

Become Sensitive to Coordination Needs in Your Work

You may be personally comfortable with your own Humble Inquiry skills, but your organization may be underperforming because various employees or groups do not recognize the degree to which they are, in fact, interdependent. There is growing acknowledgment that organizations perform better when the employees in various departments recognize their degree of interdependence and actively coordinate and collaborate with each other. Jody Gittell noted in her research on this issue that the key to coordination is shared goals, mutual understanding of each other’s work, and mutual respect.3 If you were the manager of a work group, you would want to use Humble Inquiry to determine the present state of interdependence and then invent processes in which the necessary relationships could be built to increase the level of collaboration.

As a Leader, Build Relationships with Your Team Members

The toughest relearning, or new learning, is for leaders to discover their dependence on their subordinates, to embrace Here-and-now Humility, and to build relationships of high trust and valid communication with their subordinates. This kind of attitude and behavior is the most counter-cultural, yet, I believe, the most important to learn.

The various suggestions made in this chapter so far combine to enable you, as a leader, to tackle this challenge. It goes without saying that you will need the insight to see the need for such relationships in the first place.

Build “Cultural Islands”

What remains is to devise some innovative ways to actually get the work team together and, through Humble Inquiry, begin to build the necessary trusting relationships. If the team is culturally homogeneous, it is a matter of getting them together in an informal setting and personalizing the conversation. 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?”

A different kind of innovation will be needed when your team members are culturally heterogeneous. As the leader, you don’t know initially what each team member’s own culture prescribes as the rules of deference and demeanor and what the boundaries are, both professional and personal. Cultural stereotypes will not help because you don’t know whether or not your team member fits the stereotype.

For this kind of relationship building, you need to create a “cultural island,” a situation in which you will attempt to suspend some of the cultural rules pertaining to authority and trust relationships. To do this, you need to bring your team together in an informal environment, away from the work setting, around more personal activities such as a meal or a recreational activity. A stodgy Swiss-German company made the centerpiece of its annual meeting of the top three tiers of executives a competition in a sport that no one was any good at–crossbow shooting or some other arcane local sport. The activity brought everyone down to the same status level, which then made it easier to talk more openly and build cross-hierarchical relationships.

If that feels like too much of an investment, you can bring the group together around a long lunch or dinner and ask members to talk specifically about their own experience in dealing with authority and trust. For example, you might ask them to say what they would have done in their own cultural environments if their superiors made or were about to make a mistake. By listening to actual accounts, the team can begin to calibrate where there is common ground, and you, as leader, can begin to sense what you will have to do to elicit open communication.

A similar question for everyone to answer could be, “In your own cultural environment, how did you know whether or not you could trust each other and the boss?” The goal is to elicit behavioral accounts that enable all of the members of the team to experience and calibrate the degree of diversity of rules that are operating. Until you know the range of diverse rules, you have no basis for exploring where there might be common ground that everyone can commit to.

The important point is not to judge each other but to look for common ground. If team members were to indicate that under no circumstances would they tell the boss when a mistake was about to be made, you would have to consider replacing them. What is important in this activity is to create in a learning mode what might happen in the real situation and to build consensus on what to do when surprises occur. You, as the boss, would have to model a Here-and-now Humble stance to help your team members take a risk and be honest with you as to what they would do and what they would commit to in the real work situation.

Concluding Comment

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 situations 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.


1.      Graham Leicester and Maureen O’Hara. Dancing at the Edge: Competence, Culture and Organization in the 21st Century. (Axminster, Devon: Triarchy Press, 2012).

2.      Ellen Langer. The Power of Mindful Learning. (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1997).

3.      Jody Gittell. High Performance Healthcare. (New York: McGraw Hill, 2009).


Edgar H. Schein, an experimental social psychologist, taught in the MIT Sloan School of Management for 48 years. He has authored a variety of books, including Organizational Psychology, Organizational Culture and Leadership, Helping: How to Offer, Give, and Receive Help, and DEC Is Dead, Long Live DEC, among others. Though retired since 2011, he continues to write and Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling is his latest volume.


(Reprinted from the book, Humble Inquiry by Edward Schein, with the permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2013,

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