June 21


What you could learn from ‘Humble Inquiry’ by Edgar Schein (2013, 110 pages)

While asking questions is one of the most powerful tools leaders possess, it is very easy to get wrong, especially under stress.

I am very inquisitive.  I love to ask questions, learn, debate and argue to find out more. However, I have received consistent feedback that I can be pretty brutal, and that sometimes people feel that they are being interrogated.  While this is very rarely my intent, perception is incredibly important.

The book ‘Humble Inquiry’ provides some great tools for helping leaders get better at asking questions.  The book is split into seven chapters.  Initially, the theory is explained and then demonstrated with case examples.  The book then further develops the main hypothesis (ask instead of tell) by exploring influencing factors, such as status, rank and internal factors. Finally, the book offers advice on how to develop the right attitude.

The main assumptions the book is based on are:

  1. Western cultures are very task orientated, rather than relationship orientated, and we often see power as a zero-sum game, rather than a win-win.
  2. In the future roles will become even more specialised and leaders will be responsible for people that have far greater expertise and skills in specific areas.

Therefore, leaders will need to adapt and use humble inquiry to find better solutions and engage their followers and stakeholders by building stronger relationships with curiosity and trust.


Some of the key points of the book are:

  • There are three forms of inquiry, each with their advantages and disadvantages:
    • Humble inquiry – ‘What is happening here?’
    • Diagnostic inquiry – ‘What should I be asking you right now?’
    • Confrontational inquiry – ‘Why did you do this?’
  • Don’t disguise telling in a question ‘would it be great if you did X’
  • There are three kinds of humility:
    • Basic humility – showing respect for social position or birthright  (class).  You can accept this or reject it, but not change it.
    • Optional humility – showing respect for where status is achieved.  You can admire and envy high achievers, but you can also choose to ignore or avoid.
    • Here and now humility – you need something from someone.  You can choose to deny or avoide the dependency or fail to get what you need (self-sabotage)
  • Build relationships based on curiosity and interest of other people
  • Think ‘us’
  • How to get the right attitude
    • Do more asking
    • Do less telling
    • Do a better job of listening and acknowledging

What have I learnt to do differently?

This book has helped me realise, that in some cases I told and did not ask, and often phrased telling as asking – especially with those outside my team.  I now aim to do a better job of listening, build stronger relationships around curiosity.  However, I will ensure not to blanketly apply this to all situations, humble inquiry takes time, effort and is not suitable for emergencies.  By reflecting on my meetings and conversations at the end of each day, I hope to see if I am striking the right balance and correct if needed.

You can buy Humble Inquiry on Amazon UK here (as a reminder all proceeds go to site upkeep, and extra funds are donated to veterans charities)