At several points in the book, Schein illustrates the potential for miscommunication by using examples from a typical British hospital. The operating team consists of a British senior surgeon who also works with the royal family, an anesthesiologist recently arrived from Japan, a surgical nurse from the U.S. who’s in the U.K. because of her husband’s job, and a surgical tech from a working-class London district. Though each member of the team is a highly trained professional, these diverse individuals all have cultural reasons to avoid sharing unwelcome information with the surgeon. The anesthesiologist comes from a culture in which those with higher status cannot be openly confronted, so he appears to agree with the surgeon even when his experience suggests another approach. The nurse is sensitive to the anesthesiologist’s status and does not want to embarrass him in front of the surgeon by questioning his decision to go along with whatever the surgeon says. The tech cannot imagine anyone on the team listening to a concern voiced by someone of his background and so fails to offer any views and just follows orders.
Schein describes the various circumstances under which cultural and status constraints inhibit this team from engaging in the kind of frank exchange that their complex work requires. Though each team member has specific expertise, they all fail to use it to advantage unless those with higher status humble themselves by asking questions that demonstrate their reliance on others. He further notes that some variation on this situation occurs in every kind of organization, often every day, because even as leaders struggle to create conditions that promote free exchange, expressing humility can make them feel vulnerable. True humility requires admitting dependence on those lower in the hierarchy. Only when leaders are able to overcome their fear of exhibiting such dependence can they allow their curiosity to lead them to vital information.
Humble Inquiry redresses this condition by showing managers a variety of ways to frame questions to which they do not know the answer. Schein is careful to distinguish humble questions from leading questions, rhetorical questions, embarrassing questions, or statements masquerading as questions. He also notes that the burden for asking such questions always falls on the higher-status person in an exchange. Humble inquiry is therefore especially useful as a management practice.
Like Peter Drucker, Schein rarely cites or draws from work that is not his own, an approach that paradoxically gives his observations added authority and weight. The methods he sets forth have obvious utility in many situations, but seem particularly useful for organizations undertaking complex initiatives such as culture change. In fact, it’s not extreme to say that no leader should attempt such a venture without first consulting Humble Inquiry.
In contrast to Schein’s autodidactic reliance on a lifetime of experiential learning, Daniel H. Pink continues his own tradition of digging up fresh, pertinent, and provocative research to support virtually every point he makes. In To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth about Moving Others, he builds a strong, clear case that selling, which he defines broadly as “the ability to move others,” has become an essential managerial practice rather than something that only salespeople do. (See “Daniel Pink’s New Pitch,” by Theodore Kinni, s+b, Autumn 2013.)
In Pink’s view, selling has become integrated into all kinds of work. This is true in part because more people now work as free agents, subcontractors, and entrepreneurs, either on their own or in association with a larger entity, and in part because organizations have become much flatter. Flatness erodes functional boundaries, making job descriptions more elastic. Engineers are “forward deployed” to interact with clients, while computer scientists head into the field to solve customer problems. As a result, the skills of persuasion are needed to support the practice of many kinds of expertise.