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Published: December 2, 2013
 / Winter 2013 / Issue 73

 
Business Literature: Best Business Books 2013
 

Best Business Books 2013: Managerial Self-Help

Influence, Inquiry, Action


Edgar H. Schein
Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling
(Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2013)

Daniel H. Pink
To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth about Moving Others
(Riverhead Books, 2012)

Sheryl Sandberg
Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead
(Knopf, 2013)


Business books this year have a lot to say to leaders trying to bolster their reputation and influence. If you want to become more successful in your organization, your best bet is to hone your personal skills and become a more effective practitioner.

Communicating effectively, becoming a more accomplished persuader, and helping others achieve their performance goals have long been foundational managerial roles. But as organizations become more diverse and complex, and as everyone is called upon to work more independently, refining these skills has become an imperative.

Perhaps that’s why listening, questioning, and moving others to act emerged as strong themes in the best business books offering managerial self-help this year, with the latest volumes from veteran authors Edgar H. Schein and Daniel H. Pink being the standouts. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s hugely successful Lean In complements both by providing a clear example of a leader who demonstrates in action the managerial practices that both men advocate.

Ask, Don’t Tell

Concise, cogent, and informed by a wealth of direct experience, Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling, by Edgar H. Schein, is a testament to the importance of asking questions in a way that enables others to feel comfortable giving honest answers. A pioneer in organizational development whose work has been instrumental in shaping the field since the 1950s, Schein distills lessons from a lifetime of practice in solving difficult organizational problems, helping people build strong relationships, and moving cultures in a positive direction. Simple and profoundly wise, Humble Inquiry, the best business book of the year in this category, has the makings of a classic.

Although the book wears its learning lightly, its ambitions are far from modest, for Schein sets out to do nothing less than identify and address the root causes of miscommunication in our business culture. In his view, there are two essential problems. The first is our preference for telling rather than asking. Schein finds this especially characteristic of managers in the United States, who are immersed in a tradition of pragmatic problem solving that places a premium on efficiency and speed. The second problem is the high value many leaders place on task accomplishment as opposed to relationship building, which can make them impatient with the slow work of earning real trust. In Schein’s experience, many leaders either are not aware of these cultural biases or don’t care enough to be bothered with redressing them.

Schein believes that such attitudes have become newly problematic in a diverse global environment in which a growing proportion of individuals do not necessarily share those values, and in which teams are an increasingly common organizational unit. Despite the prevalence of language exalting teamwork, Schein notes that promotional and rewards systems in many companies remain almost entirely individualistic. This creates an emphasis on star performers that can undermine engagement and trust.

The disjunction becomes particularly acute when leaders simply assume that positional power ensures that their subordinates will correctly interpret and act upon their instructions. Those who take this approach are often content to toss off a pro forma request for assent—“Does anyone have any problems with this approach?”—and leave it at that. Blinded by presumptions about the value of their status and unaware of the cultural and status constraints under which subordinates may labor, leaders intent on speed and efficiency often miss essential information. In high-risk fields, these miscommunications can have catastrophic consequences, against which checklists and professional training offer insufficient protection.

 
 
 
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