5 Things I Learned from Humble Inquiry by Edgar Schein

I chose to talk about this book at the ‘5 Things’ meetup because after reading it I realised it contained a lot of concepts I already intuitively knew but wasn’t able to name or have a strong mental model of to explain to others.

Edgar Schein was born in 1928, a professor at the MIT School of Management that has made a huge impact on organizational development. His other book ‘Helping’ is also amazing and worth a read. I love his work because it really focuses on the human aspect of leadership.

I’ve been working in tech for 15 years and the last 2 years I’ve been in a leadership position in a startup. This brought into sharp focus the perils of being a leader that is not humble, open and curious and the disastrous consequences this can have on a business and the people in it - especially one that is so fragile culturally and financially as a startup.

The book really helped inform my own leadership style and give me a concise framework to help me champion a humble leadership style at work. I try to use the tools from the book to help those that report to me to feel as motivated and happy at work as possible and that is what matters most to me as a leader.

There’s a lot in the book so I’ve chose the key things that stuck with me that I’ve applied in a practical sense in my day to day that might also help you build your mental model of what being a humble leader looks like.

What’s it about?

Humble Inquiry is a book about ‘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.’

It’s about how we produce an environment in which people will speak up, bringing up information that is safety-related, and even correct higher ups when they are about to make a mistake.

We want to maximise the chance that as leaders we can say to someone ‘If I am about to make a mistake will you tell me?’ and get an honest answer.

Humble Inquiry leads to better relationships -> better communication -> more successful teams.

Although the book is aimed at organisations and teams we can also apply it to our personal lives as well and contains a lot of non work examples to illustrate it’s points.

Even ordinary conversations are defined by what we tell rather than what we ask, with questions taken for granted rather than having a starring role. Yet what builds relationships, solves problems and makes progress is asking the right questions.

1. Asking questions empowers others, while telling puts others down.

Telling can imply someone doesn’t already know what you are telling them and they ought to. This can lead to frustration at best and feeling offended at worst.

It doesn’t mean telling is always bad, there are some situations where it is necessary, but a lot of the time it can get in the way of building relationships and fostering trust when mis-applied.

On the other hand, asking temporarily empowers the other person in the conversation and temporarily makes us vulnerable. It draws the other person into the situation and the driver’s seat; it enables the other person to help or hurt us and opens the door to building a relationship.

If we don’t care about relationship building, telling is fine. Otherwise, telling is riskier than asking.

If we want to build a relationship we have to begin by investing something in it. Humble Inquiry lets us invest by spending our attention upfront. We are saying ‘I am prepared to listen to you and am making myself vulnerable to you’.

In return, we may learn something that we didn’t know and needed to know and a trusting relationship can begin to form, through an interactive process in which each person invests and gets something of value in return.

So you know all those times you’re in conversation with someone where they talk about someone you don’t even know in situations you have never experienced? That’s exactly how not to build a trusting relationship.

2. In order to open up and be vulnerable, we need an awareness and acceptance of here-and-now humility.

The author defines 3 types of humility.

Basic Humility

This is where status is by birth or social position and humility is not a choice but a condition. We can accept or resent it, but we can’t arbitrarily change it.

Optional Humility

This is where status is achieved through accomplishments, where we feel humbled in the presence of those who have achieved more than us and that we admire or envy.

Here-and-now humility

Here-and-now humility is when we are dependent on someone else to get a task done and they can choose to help or hinder us. It is essential to build a relationship with that person that leads to open task-related communication so we don’t miss crucial facts that could cause us to fail.

Being aware of here-and-now humility is critical for building open relationships since the temporary subordination it creates leads to psychological safety for the other party.

We are saying we acknowledge them, won’t take advantage of them, won’t embarrass or humiliate them, we will tell them the truth and we will work on their behalf and support the goals we have agreed to.

This in turn increases the chance they will tell us what we need to know and help us get our task done.

Imagine I tell you to pass me a mug with your right hand. You do so, but drop the mug onto the floor because your hand is broken. If I had asked you the best way for me to get to the mug, you would have said you can pass it to me with your left hand and we succeed together at the task.

Is the onus on the person to speak up? No, especially not in some cultures where speaking up to their bosses is very much taboo. We must stay open and curious.

3. Adapting our style of questioning can maximise our chances of building better relationships.

The author defines 4 types of inquiry that we can engage in that have differing purposes and do not all serve the purpose of furthering the building of trust.

Humble Inquiry

Humble Inquiry is when we want others to feel that we accept them, are interested in them and are genuinely curious about what is on their minds.

Feelings of the here-and-now humility we just learned about are the main basis for this curiosity and interest due to the nature of being temporarily dependent and vulnerable to the person in order to receive positive helping behaviour from them.

To achieve this we need to be maximising exploratory questions that minimize telling and maximise letting the other person tell their story in as unbiased a way as we can.

  • So…
  • What’s happening?
  • Go on…
  • Can you give me an example?

‘Hi, how are you’ is not a Humble Inquiry because it is culturally scripted to elicit ‘Fine, how are you’.

Diagnostic Inquiry

This is one of the most common deviations that happens when we get curious about a particular thing that someone is telling us and we choose to focus on it.

We take charge of the direction of a conversation often by asking a further question instead of answering an original question.

Imagine someone asks you how to get to Princes St Gardens, and instead of saying ‘where are you trying to get to’ (Humble Inquiry), we say ‘Why are you trying to get there’ then we have indulged our curiosity in an unhelpful way.

  • How did you feel about that?
  • Why did that happen?

Confrontational Inquiry

Confrontational Inquiry happens when we insert our own ideas but in the form of a question.

We want information related to something we want to know and take charge of both the process and the content of the conversation by giving advice.

This makes it harder to build a relationship by making a person defend their stance and can create resistance.

  • ‘Did that not make you angry?’ vs ‘How did that make you feel?’
  • ‘Were they surprised?’ vs ‘How did the others react?’

Process Oriented Inquiry

Process Oriented Inquiry is when we shift the focus onto the conversation itself, which can be useful but needs to be handled in a delicate way to ensure it stays humble.

  • ‘Why were you so defensive when I told you how I felt?’ vs ‘Is this too personal?’

4. Understanding what our culture actually is the key to being able to use Humble Inquiry.

Company values posters are normally created from what the author calls ‘espoused values’ and the real culture is made of unspoken ‘tacit assumptions’.

  • Espoused - to adopt or support
  • Tacit - understood or implied without being stated

Espoused values are what we unearth when we enter a new culture and ask about what things mean. These might be ideals such as freedom, individualism or the promotional system.

Tacit assumptions are taken for granted behaviours and artefacts that are the true essence of a culture that paves the way for Humble Inquiry to take place.

For example we may claim to value teamwork and talk about it all the time, but our artefacts e.g. promotional systems are entirely individualistic showing that the espoused value of teamwork is at odds with the tacit assumption that individuals are valued more than teams.

Knowing the difference between our organisations espoused values and tacit assumptions is the key to understanding our real company culture and in turn vital for creating an environment that can make humble inquiry possible.

5. Cultures that value individualism and prevent managers from displaying here-and-now humility block Humble Inquiry.

This is problematic because we exist in cultures where we value task accomplishment over relationship building (tacit assumption) and do not like or trust groups but pretend to value teamwork (espoused value).

Our culture is also one where a manager asking a report ‘what should we do’ is often considered failure leading to a default stance of ‘telling’ and we therefore still compete on who can ‘tell’ the most.

Our reports are always in a vulnerable position and must feel safe before they will fully commit to open communication and collaboration, which requires relationship building and not telling.

If we do not do this and do not engage in Humble Inquiry, it’s impossible to know if communication is good because reports will not admit if they have misunderstood and may not share critical, sometimes safety related, information.

Leaders need to push past the culture of telling and accept that the more complex the task, the greater degree of interdependence the more the leader has to acknowledge here-and-now humility and engage in Humble Inquiry to get the best outcome.


To have better relationships and be more successful at work and home we should aim to ask more and tell less, and stay curious and humble.

There will always be times that those that report to us know more that we do and we need to accept and embrace that and get comfortable with the vulnerability that empowers others.

Depending on the type of questions we ask, we may increase or decrease our chances of gaining trust and important insights from another person.

There is a disconnect between the values we say we believe and the values we actually have. Understanding the values we actually have is key to being able to foster an environment where humble inquiry is possible.

Managers need to push past the desire to ‘tell the most’ and employ humble inquiry especially so when in a situation of complex and ambiguous tasks so that their reports can trust them with vital task oriented information.

I’ll leave you with the original question to hold in your mind.

‘If I am about to make a mistake will you tell me?’