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?


(An Excerpt from my recent book, What Matters at Work)

“We must become better at asking and do less telling in a culture that overvalues telling.” — Edgar Schein, Humble Inquiry (2014)

We constantly communicate, but do we truly understand one another? Much conflict occurs because of misunderstanding, and as we engage in hurried, often remote communication strategies, we tend to hear only part of the situation. We then affiliate with those we perceive to be similar to us and “on our side” of the work issue, or become further entrenched in the social or political divide. This is not a recent phenomenon, as there is often a deep suspicion of Other that expresses itself across cultures and centuries (this is further discussed in Lesson 18 on Diversity and Inclusion).

Today’s workplace requires us to pay attention, communicate effectively, and work collaboratively to address complex issues. Yet because we are overwhelmed with information and have difficulty discerning where to focus our attention, it is easy to get lost in the minutiae and lose What Matters. We need to listen… deeply… and we need to be fully Present to the Core Story, Values, and Intentions that should be guiding our efforts and those of our colleagues.

Management guru Edgar Schein offers an important set of insights in this regard: Through his books, Humble Inquiry (2014)  and Humble Consulting (2016), Schein recognizes that those with the privilege of position and power often miss what needs to be learned from their colleagues, due either to perceptions of ‘normal behavior’ or arrogance. He argues that many errors in judgment and decision-making could be avoided with a fundamental shift in attitudes by such leaders, accompanied by a commitment to fully listen to one another. He calls it, “humble inquiry.” I see it as a combination of humility, curiosity, and openness to diverse (and divergent) perspectives in our pursuit of What Matters.

Listening fully must be accompanied by a commitment to really learn from one another through our conversations. All too often, consultants, technical experts, and those in leadership roles are expected to have the answers. Yet much of the knowledge required comes from others, across the organization, perhaps with unassuming titles. This takes a little more time in the near term, but in the long run it yields vast dividends of insight, understanding, and focused action in pursuit of the right solutions to correct problems.

We focus here on the simple act of listening, which encourages authentic communication around meaningful issues. Through such conversations, relationships are built and insights into our Core Stories are developed, all benefitting from a genuine sense of curiosity and openness.

Exercise: Listen with Humility and Curiosity

WHO: Solo/ Pair

WHY: To have a meaningful conversation, characterized by deep listening, humility, openness, and curiosity, in order to foster effective mutual understanding. From resulting insights, participants may best determine what actions, if any, are required.

HOW: You will need a Partner for this activity… perhaps someone already involved in your efforts at What Matters at Work… or it could be a colleague you don’t know as well.
Step 1: Be seated comfortably so you can easily see and hear your Partner. Take a deep breath, relax, and focus on your Partner in this conversation. Regard the other person with warmth and respect.
Step 2: Take a listening stance, with an open body, removing distractions. Invite your Partner to speak openly and honestly about a matter of personal importance to them, including how their experience has led to this perspective. Listen fully: As you do so, encourage, clarify, summarize, validate – demonstrate your humble curiosity without judgment. Allow sufficient time, at least five minutes.
Step 3: Take a minute to inquire, “How might I be able to assist you?” The response from your Partner may be to simply be present and listen, or to ask your advice and guidance… that need comes from your Partner. If invited to do so, offer your guidance clearly, empathically, and concisely… speak from what you know, rather than to speculate or be judgmental. The Intention is for you to convey your full commitment to understanding your Partner’s experience and truth, and to support your Partner’s efforts to clarify What Matters as it emerges.
Step 4: In turn, share your perspective on something that matters to you, perhaps from your Core Story. If your Partner can reciprocate your behaviors, you will both be able to benefit from such a conversation.
Step 5: After the conversation ends, take a moment to reflect:

  • What did you appreciate about this conversation? 
  • How might it have been improved? 
  • How might such conversations benefit us in our workplace? 
  • Are there opportunities to have them, or are there chances to create such opportunities? 

I have appreciated Edgar Schein’s contributions and feel he has a wonderful way of relating these concepts to traditional business settings. In my next Post, I want to focus on his most recent book, Humble Leadership (2018), where he directly applies these approaches to listening with humility to the ways leaders should approach their responsibilities. 


Structuring Transformative Conversations

(An excerpt from my new book, What Matters at Work)

Over many years, Peter Block has offered us numerous tools, stories, and pathways to discover What Matters at Work. Among his books is one especially useful at this juncture in our learning: Community: The Structure of Belonging (2009, revised 2018) offers personal insights from Block’s experiences in Cincinnati, as well as a conceptual model that helps us understand crucial distinctions in approaches to groups and community-building. Earlier, we quoted Block’s ideas regarding the role of physical space in building community (Lesson 11). For now, I offer the “Six Conversations” that Block identifies for groups to explore if they seek meaningful change in their organizations or communities: 

Invitation: This is the First Conversation. Invitation is required to capture potential participants’ attention in the midst of busy, distracted lives, the “subject line” that engages our interest. It is the foundation of hospitality from which other conversations are possible. 

Possibility: This is an aspirational conversation, one that challenges us to engage our imaginations to contemplate the unreachable. For example, “If we were to build an organization that fully expresses our values, what would that look like, sound like, feel like?”

Ownership: This is a conversation about personal accountability and “skin in the game.” “What are you prepared to contribute in order to fulfill our Possibility?”

Dissent: Building community requires more than being nice with one another. It involves speaking truthfully and hearing honest areas of difference and dissent. This conversation embraces dissent as an essential stepping stone in that process. “What are areas of concern and disagreement? What might be alternative approaches that have not been fully considered?”

Commitment: This conversation asks us how we wish to translate our Ownership into action… “What are you prepared to do in order to demonstrate your commitment to the project? How are you prepared to respond to obstacles and challenges along the way that sap your energy and question your resolve?”

Gifts: This is a conversation in which we take stock of our assets, acknowledge what we bring individually and collectively to the enterprise, and consider any “strings” that may be attached to engaging any of those assets. It also helps us notice gaps or areas where other gifts may be required. “What gifts, strengths, talents, or assets do we each bring to this effort? Collectively, what does this say about our capacity to achieve our Possibility?” 

In practice, each of these conversations can be sequenced in order to facilitate an effective result. For example, if I have a troubled group that has lost energy and momentum, I may follow this approach: 

  • Offer a compelling Invitation that names the importance of the issue and invites everyone to discuss it openly and honestly. Then,
  • Facilitate an Ownership conversation that explores what levels of energy and commitment truly exist, without judgment, for continuing to engage in the work of the group. 
  • The group should take stock of its assets and Gifts, so we could appreciate the capacities of its members. From there, we could… 
  • Examine the Possibility and promise offered by this group, transcending the energy-draining nature of the current state of the group. 
  • I’d also want to be sure Dissenting opinions were explored and respected, before seeking a Commitment regarding future actions. 

This sequence makes sense to me in light of my own experience with such groups… you might find another pathway nourishes the conversation and helps the group determine its future.36

Several years ago, I convened a ten-week study group that sprang from this excellent text – that could be a great bonus activity for this lesson!  undefined

Exercise: Six Conversations           

WHO: Group       

WHY: To explore the potential value of the various types of conversations described, and how each is a valuable approach in learning What Matters.


Step 1: Bring these questions to a meeting of a group in which you are exploring meaningful change to a project, considering a proposed innovation, or addressing a community matter. 

Step 2: Offer these questions as a way to structure the group’s inquiry; engage in whichever of the “Six Conversations” appear to be relevant to the group at this time.

Step 3: After the meeting: 

  • What did you notice about these questions? 
  • How did each make a unique contribution to the discussion? 
  • As a result, how would you now describe the group in terms of its efforts to get to What Matters in their context?

What Matters at Work — Book is Out!

After two years of work, I’m so pleased the book, What Matters at Work is now available! It has been a wonderful process of writing, feedback, improvement, and (ultimately) publication that I hope will resonate with many people across a vast swath of organization life. There is already one 3-session course based upon this work, and it pleases me to now have this text to support it. Workshops and consultations will be developed over the coming weeks and months that allow for “deep dives” into the material — in many ways, simply putting these ideas out there will be most informative regarding where there is need and priority.

If you can, pick up a copy! Read it, work on the exercises, and provide feedback regarding what more is needed. Here’s the Amazon link – I hope you like it…