Management Consultant Mike Eldon

Drop the know-it-all attitude to become an effective leader

In my last article of 2018 I promised to write more about one of my favourite management gurus, Prof Edgar Schein of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

I described this 90-year old as the father of organisational psychology and organisational culture, and praised the way he was so ahead of his time when he published his ground-breaking 1965 book, Organisational Psychology.

I first came across his work around then, when I was an economics undergraduate in London and my father was the head of Shell International’s Worldwide Management Training Department. I remember that as he was preparing his programmes for Shell executives from around the oil company’s global operations my father paid a visit to America to inform himself on the latest management thinking, and that Prof Schein was among those he met.

I have applied Prof Schein’s insights on culture and organisational development over the years (knowingly or unknowingly most of us have), and late last year when I was visiting the bookshop of the London Business School following at the place where I earned my Master’s degree in 1974 I bought his 2013 book, Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling.

The book’s title immediately tantalised me, but I did wonder how a whole volume could be dedicated to just explaining why asking works better than telling. How could one possibly fill over a hundred pages elaborating on such a straightforward statement? Well, Prof Schein did, so valuably and in such simple language, offering us the benefit of his many decades of experience as an academic and a consultant.

By the way he hadn’t finished with the subject, as he followed up with a complementary offering, Humble Leadership: The Power of Relationships, Openness and Trust, published last year and co-authored with his son, Peter. Here again, vital clues to Schein’s message are already offered in the sub-title, provoking instant important reflection.

Prof Schein rails at leaders — and there are so many, not least in America, he says — who pose as know-it-alls, whether they actually believe they do or if it’s more because they believe others expect them to. The sad thing is that they lack the humility to admit that they do not know it all, never mind in this fast-changing, complex and interconnected world.

With such an I’m OK — You’re not OK, Parent — Child, attitude comes the assumption that those around them do not know, which is demeaning and disrespectful to them. So they feel demotivated and the leader’s relationship with them suffers, not least in terms of trust.

Next comes the undue focus by leaders on tasks, at the expense of taking time to build relationships — again, according to Prof Schein, particularly in America. Yes, that takes time, whether in the workplace or even better in a social setting. But he has seen — as I have — that this is time well spent, for it allows for the development of openness and hence effective communication among people of different functions, levels, cultures, generations and so on that would otherwise not be possible.

He also notes that when organisations look to cut budgets one of the first items to suffer is teambuilding sessions — for the same reason and with the same unfortunate consequences.

Prof Schein wants to see us draw others out, ask questions to which we do not already know the answer, build relationships based on curiosity and interest in the other person. And at several times in the book he takes us to the healthcare sector, one that too often falls short. Doctors often do a poor job not only with their patients but also with nursing staff and technicians. While being insufficiently curious about their patients they intimidate their staff, leading them to being too shy to speak up when they should. Sounds familiar?

Whatever leadership position you find yourself in, whether as a board member or in management, whether you are young or old, do reflect on how much humble inquiring you indulge in. Allow yourself to appear vulnerable; risk being thought of as less than all-knowing. And as Prof Schein concludes with his final sentence: “Take charge with Humble Inquiry.”