The manager (or consultant) who practises Edgar Schein’s “gentle art of asking” drops the old-fashioned humiliation-averse managerial stance in favour of actively humbling oneself to tap into their team’s resourcefulness.
Schein describes Humble Inquiry like this: “Humble Inquiry is the fine art of drawing someone out, of asking questions to which you do not already know the answer, of building a relationship based on curiosity and interest in the other person.”
The stakes are exceptionally high, not simply for making organisational progress but for averting disaster. In study after study, researchers exploring disasters such as plane crashes have found that in nearly all of them, junior staff held information that could have prevented it but were too frightened to speak up. The organisational culture silenced them.
Humble Inquiry is consonant with gestalt approaches to consulting and organisational change. The aim here is to cultivate an organisational culture in which it’s safe for everyone to speak the truth; and the only way that’s going to happen is if the attitude of the managerial layers of an organisation is collectively one of acceptance.
The art is to convey a powerful message alongside the questions, which says: “I respect you, I’m not trying to catch you out, and I genuinely don’t know the answer.”
This is radically at odds with the stance of the traditional manager, who seeks, in what Freud would instantly recognise as a fantasy of omnipotence, to be the oracle of all wisdom. He can’t ask a subordinate for help because he’s secretly frightened of humiliation; and fear has a nasty tendency to leak and contaminate others.
Simple questions, asked sincerely and with humility, can reverse this: “I’d love to know how you see this. I know how I see it, but how do you? Where do we differ? How can you help me see things differently?” are all far more powerful and enriching than “Do as you’re told.”