Humble Inquiry – The Art of Elevating Your Employees

Effective leadership requires more than just authority - it demands humility, curiosity, and empathy. Explore the concept of humble inquiry with insights from experts like Edgar Schein and research by Mats Alvesson and Stefan Sveningsson. Discover how asking questions with genuine curiosity can transform your leadership approach and foster a culture of trust, collaboration, and innovation within your organisation.
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Effective leadership is often associated with qualities such as decisiveness, confidence, and assertiveness. However, there’s another, often overlooked trait that can be equally – if not more – valuable in driving organisational success: humble inquiry. Drawing on insights from organisational psychologists like Edgar Schein and researchers like Mats Alvesson and Stefan Sveningsson, in this blog post, we’ll explore the concept of humble inquiry and its profound implications for leadership and organisational dynamics.

Understanding Humble Inquiry

Humble inquiry, as defined by Schein, is about asking questions with genuine curiosity and a desire to understand, rather than asserting authority or expertise. Schein reflects on the cultural bias prevalent in Western societies, especially in the USA, where managers are often expected to share advice rather than inquire into employees’ perspectives. This bias can hinder effective communication and collaboration, creating barriers to innovation and problem-solving.

The Benefits of Humble Inquiry

By embracing humble inquiry, leaders can unlock a host of benefits for themselves and their organisations. Schein’s work emphasises how humble inquiry contributes to the creation of a positive work environment, where team members feel seen, acknowledged, and respected. This, in turn, leads to increased employee morale, motivation, and engagement, as well as improved communication and collaboration across the organisation.

Applying Humble Inquiry in Leadership

Practising humble inquiry in leadership involves more than just asking questions – it’s about cultivating a mindset of humility, curiosity, and empathy in our interactions with others. Drawing on Alvesson and Sveningsson’s research, leaders can leverage everyday moments to demonstrate humility, whether it’s through engaging in small talk, actively listening to team members’ concerns, or acknowledging their own limitations and uncertainties.

My own leadership journey has been profoundly shaped by a period of leading a team during a turnaround of the company. Despite lacking professional experience in the specific domain of my team, I found that humble inquiry became my most valuable tool. By asking questions, seeking input, and genuinely listening to my team members’ insights, I was able to tap into their expertise, foster collaboration, and drive meaningful change.

Practical Tips for Practising Humble Inquiry

To incorporate humble inquiry into your leadership approach, consider the following tips:

  • Foster a culture of curiosity by encouraging questions and embracing diverse perspectives.
  • Practise active listening by giving your full attention and showing empathy towards others’ experiences and viewpoints.
  • Lead by example by demonstrating humility, vulnerability, and a willingness to learn from others.

To make it very practical, here are some examples of questions you can use when applying humble inquiry:

  • What are your thoughts on this project/task?
  • Can you tell me more about your approach to solving this problem?
  • How do you think we could improve our team’s efficiency?
  • What challenges are you currently facing, and how can I support you?
  • What do you think are our team’s strengths and weaknesses?
  • Can you share your perspective on the recent changes in our organisation?
  • How do you feel about the direction our team is heading in?
  • What ideas do you have for improving communication within our team?
  • What would you like to see more of in terms of leadership support?
  • How can we ensure that everyone’s voice is heard and valued in our team meetings?

As you can see, these questions are open-ended and invite dialogue, reflection, and collaboration. By asking them with genuine curiosity and a desire to understand, leaders can demonstrate humility, build trust, and foster a culture of openness and collaboration within their teams.

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In conclusion, humble inquiry is not just a leadership skill – it’s a mindset that can transform organisational culture and drive success. By embracing humility, curiosity, and respect in our interactions, we can build stronger relationships, foster innovation, and create workplaces where individuals feel valued and empowered to contribute their best. As leaders, let’s commit to practising humble inquiry and unlocking the full potential of ourselves and those around us.


Schein, E. H. (2013). Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling.
Alvesson, M., & Sveningsson, S. (2003). Managers Doing Leadership: The Extra-Ordinarization of the Mundane. Human Relations, pp. 1435-1459.


Picture by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash.

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