Today, the most enlightened parents know that they’ve “got it right” when they can talk to their children in such a way that their children feel free to talk back. Surprisingly, many businesses seem to have neglected this basic truth; if managers can’t talk to people in a way that makes them feel comfortable in contributing to the organisation, they miss out on a rich repository of creativity.
Part of the problem is that large organisations are incredibly complex. For hundreds of years, all employers needed from their workforce were strong arms and strong backs. Employers tended not to be too interested in what the worker thought or felt; they just wanted the latter’s labour, and that was enough. Those days, thankfully, are over. Much of the back-breaking labour of yore has been automated. Today, we need people’s intelligence, not their muscle power.
Recently, Edgar Schein, an Organisational Psychology specialist, has argued that managers are required today to eschew “telling” in favour of gently asking for views and ideas, a process he calls “Humble Inquiry”.
Organisational hierarchies can function as barriers to free exchange. Take an operating theatre: a surgeon, widely recognised as the top of the medical hierarchy, is performing an operation, assisted by nurses (lower in the hierarchy) and technicians (even lower). A nurse notices something going wrong. Unless the surgeon has actively cultivated a culture of Humble Inquiry, the nurse may feel unable to bring attention to what could be a calamitous error. Humble Inquiry matters.
In rigid hierarchies, managers tend to feel that if they’re corrected by, or if they need to ask for help from, someone in their team, they’ll be humiliated – they’ll suffer a collapse in the status they believe they’re entitled to. This is an outmoded, destructive and even dangerous attitude to cling on to.
In Part Two, I’ll say more about cultivating the gentle art of asking.