The Art of ‘Humble Inquiry’

Humble Inquiry, by Edgar H. Schein, documents the type of communication that should be applied to various personal and professional relationships. Along with bu51vO3tAAbjLilding relationships, people need to start “asking questions to which they do not already know the answer”.

In many instances, those with power and status are reluctant to broadcast their need for information from their subordinates, even when doing so will lead to better results. In society, we routinely display basic humility for those people who are seen to deserve respect – royalty, bosses – and optional humility to those people we view as having accomplished something special – sports stars, musicians. In his book, Schein describes goes on to describe a third type of humility, called here-and-now humility, which is not based on social norms or recent success. Instead, this form of humility is situational and it based on what the person needs. For example, a CEO may need to rely on his executive team, or a coach may need to adjust his plan based on what the athletes tell him.

In one simple, yet effective, example, Schein takes use inside a surgical theater. Here, a four person team (with characters and relationships highlighted in the attached diagram) must work together to complete their combined goal. These four actors have to balance differences of gender, nationality, class, and professionalism while constantly providing information to one another so the operation is successful. The thing that Schein highlights which is unique is that although all three co-workers under Dr. Brown will show respect and humility to him and possibly each other, it is Dr. Brown who needs to show the most humility.

Why? Because, as senior surgeon and the one in charge, Dr. Brown requires information on the equipment, the anesthesia, the patient’s vital signs, and many other factors during the process. If he operates without an openness to receive criticism or a differing opinion, it means he may not receive important information. If his team does not receive feedback, they may feel that anything other than basic humility may run the risk of retaliation or loss of their position.


I find this book powerful as it describes a major problem facing international development. Similar to the example above, development work routinely involves people from different countries working together to reach a common goal. Some have long track records, while others have never traveled outside their home country. They bring with them all of their cultural upbringings.

All expats start off with a disadvantage. They need to learn the culture of the people they are working with. There are differences in language, religion, commerce, family dynamics, politics, and history. The people who are most knowledgeable about these subjects are the people who have lived there their whole lives.

Additionally, people coming to work for a few months or even a year to enact a project need to recognize that they might have the wrong answer. If they are humble and acknowledge their naïveté, they will be able to start the conversation from a better place. Local people know what works and what doesn’t. They have seen NGO’s come and seen NGO’s go. They can help development workers save so much time and effort, if only they were included in the conversation.

Going forward, I hope to use humble inquiry and an open mind when working in development.

I know I have much to learn. I will try to ask more than I tell.

Have you ever rushed to action, only to later find out you should have asked a question?

Have you ever wished you asked a question so that you were better prepared?

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