Communicating effectively is a foundational project leadership role. Communication is essential in a healthy project. All too often, when we interact with team mates—especially those who report to us—we simply tell them what we think they need to know. This shuts them down. To generate bold new ideas, to avoid disastrous mistakes, to develop agility and flexibility, we need to practice Humble Inquiry. 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.
Schein defines Humble Inquiry as “the fine art of drawing someone out, of asking questions to which you do not know the answer, of building a relationship based on curiosity and interest in the other person.”
Sally Helgesen reviewed the book in Strategy+Business magazine as one of the Best Business Books 2013: Managerial Self-Help. The rest of this blog adapts her review to apply to project management/project leadership.
In Schein’s view, there are two essential problems with communication on projects. The first is our preference for telling rather than asking. He finds this especially characteristic of project 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 project 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 project 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 project 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.
He 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 project, often every day, because even as project 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 project leaders are able to overcome their fear of exhibiting such dependence can they allow their curiosity to lead them to vital information.
If you want to find out how things are going on your project, start with asking humble questions and take time to listen . . . instead of telling. Many project management mistakes can be avoided by just listening to all the members . . . sponsors, core team and part-time participants . . . of the project team. They have the information you need. Intrusive asking or telling turns people away. Humble inquiry opens space for everyone on the project
to share his or her information and ideas.