How Humble Leadership Helps Us Focus on What Matters

Edgar Schein’s recent work has focused on the importance of listening with humility, openness, and respect. This is reflected in Humble Inquiry (2014) and Humble Consulting (2016), but he provides a great focus on applications to leaders in his latest piece, Humble Leadership (2018). In his work, Schein (along with his son, Peter Schein) defines four levels of relationships within the workplace: 

Level Minus 1: Total impersonal domination and coercion

Level 1: Transactional role and rule-based supervision, service, and most forms of “professional” helping relationships

Level 2: Personal cooperative, trusting relationships as in friendships and effective teams

Level 3: Emotionally intimate total mutual commitments

We all recognize these four levels and can readily imagine people who represent them. Level “Minus 1” represents the tyrannical boss who rules by coercion and fear… all too common in our workplaces. This relationship is rationalized and justified for its ability to keep people “on their toes,” for its ability to grind every morsel of task energy out of people, and its shark-like disruption of the complacency of disengaged workers who are ‘coasting’ towards retirement. But the natural consequence of Level “Minus 1” is that people compete with one another out of fear — removing incentives to genuinely collaborate — and they often leave the business out of exhaustion, mentally spent. The “profit” that supposedly results is actually an illusion, as much of the social capital and creativity that could be released is either withheld or placed in other spaces. 

Level 1 “transactional relationships” are common enough and represent what I call “safe” approaches to our leadership. Rules are clear, expectations are understood, and staff members can focus on their own areas of specialization. However, there is rarely anything of greater depth that comes from such situations, as there remains cautious compliance with parameters and an infrequent willingness to either question authority or otherwise transcend the boxes in which we place ourselves and our colleagues. 

Level 2 relationships are reflected in what Schein calls, “personization.” This is not a typo, but a new term that represents “the process of mutually building a working relationship with a fellow employee, teammate, boss, subordinate, or colleague based on trying to see that person as a whole, not just in the role that he or she may occupy at the moment.” Level 2 relationships require that we listen deeply, with a genuine curiosity about one another and an openness to be surprised, disturbed, or enchanted with what emerges. It is how we can aspire to working in a way that focuses on What Matters.

Personizing should not be confused with being nice or being friends — it has everything to do with building effective working relationships that can serve us as we seek to hold our ‘blind spots’ up to the light, or as we invite questions, criticisms, new topics of conversation, and genuine efforts at innovation. 

Level 3 relationships are worthy of consideration, and they can emerge from a commitment to the various types of activities that we are discussing on this blog and in my book. We deepen our relationships through ongoing conversations, such as those discussed in the previous post, and by making a dedicated effort to engage in follow-up actions that build confidence in our credibility as leaders. And Level 3 relationships develop when we make a sincere effort to address conflicts as they naturally arise, and use processes that are collaborative and civil to address them. 

There is enough in these ideas to stop at this point — what do you think? What types of relationships tend to exist in your organization? What barriers prevent the development of Level 2 and Level 3 relationships?

Published by Harry Webne-Behrman

I am a facilitator, mediator, educator, and consultant specializing in addressing complex challenges and disputes within organizations. I bring over 40 years experience to this work and offer two recent books, What Matters at Work (2020) and What Matters in This Moment (2021) to these efforts.

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