Does the Humble Inquiry have a place in a culture of collaboration?

This is a guest post by @Gemma_Lelliott


I joined the
@Doers_Improvers in Autumn 2019, after connecting with some amazing, passionate and engaged people at GovCamp Cymru. The group are interested in ‘wellbeing, sustainability, doing things differently & improving stuff … learning & sharing together’.

When the group chose Humble Enquiry as their December read I had no opinion on the book – I haven’t read any of Schein’s other books and I am always interested in learning and improving my communication skills, so I was happy to get stuck into it.

I was surprised to find I had quite a visceral reaction to the book, almost physical. I found the language and tone of the book a challenge – words like subordinate, respect, and hierarchy litter it throughout. I am lucky to have experienced very few examples of an autocratic, dictatorial management style of what Schein refers to as ‘the culture of tell’. Being managed by people who use this approach has universally left me feeling like I need to find a new job!

I found it quite hard to make myself read beyond the first few chapters. I felt that Schein was encouraging readers to use Humble Enquiry as a way of manipulating relationships, to feign an interest in the other person’s point of view in order to complete a transaction – if I humble myself to you then you will feel more positively disposed towards me, you will feel more inclined to help me/do what I want/tell me what I want to know.

Speaking to those working in more process-driven environments I find that my reaction to the language and the approach is not universal – other people don’t have the same visceral reaction to the word ‘subordinate’ for example, seeing it purely as a descriptor rather than as a pejorative term. While I find the implied power dynamic problematic, for others it simply describes a chain of command which makes clear where the responsibility lies and who allocates tasks.

Living and working in Wales, there is much more of a culture of collaboration, of community, and of shared purpose than the author describes in America. I am also very fortunate to have largely worked in environments and for managers who have seen and expressed the value of collaborative approaches to tackling problems, and have worked with me in a way which recognises my knowledge, experience and value. Perhaps part of their strength as managers was down to their effective use of Humble Enquiry?

On reflection, once I had discussed the book with the group and others I was able to pull out some useful things to think about – if nothing else, I have taken some time to reflect on my preferences around language and how that might differ for other people. I also took some time to think about how I could use some of my natural curiosity in a more purposeful way, to help others feel more comfortable and to ensure I understand their perspective – potentially even improving relationships along the way.

Finally, would I recommend the book? Maybe, if you work in a very process-focused role or traditional hierarchy model. I’m not sure I would go out of my way to read Schein’s work again personally. I might, however, revisit an old favourite, Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits – I feel like ‘seek first to understand, before seeking to be understood’ might have tackled this question in a way that sits more comfortably for me and could help me in my quest to communicate more effectively!

 

 3minuteleadership.org

 

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