Where does Grateful Leadership start?

The Gratitude Connection

By Donald Officer

The critical point is not to stereotype the situation even if it looks like something familiar.  ~ Edgar Schein, Helping: How to Offer, Give and Receive Help

The quotation comes from a 2009 book by Edgar Schein, of MIT’s Sloan School of Management and The Sloan Fellows Professor of Management. Schein taught there since his appointment in 1956 until retirement. Over that remarkable career and beyond he has managed to do “a little consulting” in the United States and overseas as he modestly puts it, while publishing a continuous thread of seminal articles and books. Schein is one of the foremost transformers of management consulting in the 20th Century, always aiming for its aspirational best.

It was Schein who 50 years ago published Process Consultation: Its Role in Organization Development, a short 150-page book that would frame the discipline of organization development and set the rules for facilitation, coaching and all manner of positive interventions. Schein has also written some comprehensive editions like Organizational Culture and Leadership (2004) mapping the very field of organizational culture. And yet, it is his little books which most definitively condense his contribution: books like Process Consultation, Helping and Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling. I believe this last book is foundational to Grateful Leadership and Acknowledgment, so listen up to what he has to say.

Two words “humble” and “inquiry”: but each denotes both positive and useless or damaging interpretations. Both terms can spark conflict, controversy or a total meltdown. Ours, as Schein writes, is a “tell and do” culture, not a “listen and reflect” one.

Rationales abound everywhere around us to cultivate or reject all kinds of humility. Fortunately, Schein has unpacked “humble” for us. There are three kinds: 1) basic humility – deference to the socially elevated, acceptance of your place in the given order. Well, I don’t know about you but that sort of rankles with me. Essentially, this kind of humility really ought to be obsolete.

The second variety is more palatable to the democratic mindset:  2) optional humility – earned credit. If you were sitting beside a Nobel laureate, someone with a long and impressive career or an extraordinary humanitarian you might feel humbled just being there. Genuine heroes and champions of good work command a form of humility from all but the most resolute narcissists. Optional in theory, but really?

Neither of these first two varieties represents the outlook Schein is focused on in this book. His third form of humility is the humble in humble inquiry. Schein regards this kind of humble as the most “crucial” 3) Here-and-now humility – the plain truth is that on some occasion one of us in some context that matters, regardless of title or position. will be in an inferior position to the other who knows something or can perform some important function that needs doing. Like type one, type three can feel uncomfortable, but this time, not for any good reason!

“When you are dependent on someone to get a task accomplished, it is essential that you build a relationship with that person that will lead to task-related communication.” Schein explains. The simplest processes often fall apart when relationships that allow clear communication are not in place. Without honest admission of dependence where it genuinely exists, that precariousness remains. Admission takes the form of genuine gratitude and its expression is true leadership.

Related to the humility issue is the equally complex matter of inquiry. According to Edgar Schein, “Questioning is both a science and an art.” Pollsters like therapists, counselors, coaches, facilitators and consultants work hard on how they frame and put questions. Professionals who work closely with individuals who may be indifferent to matters of consequence or conflicted in how they address interpersonal or internal turmoil know well the tricky delicacy of effective interrogation. What happens in ordinary life seldom benefits from this kind of focus.

How many managers squirm and blush as they are caught masking their embarrassment at not being omniscient, at not being “perfect “leaders? Resisting appropriate humility leads directly to a botched inquiry as the moment to show true leadership passes. What kind of leadership do you show when you ask a leading question that sets a trap? The courts are keenly attuned to this kind of maneuvering and judges criticize counsel for attempting this line of inquiry. Likewise, consider suggestive rhetorical questions that may have a role in formal debate or editorials (if not overused). In contrast, there’s the direct assault spurred on by the anonymous promptings of social media. We are all wearied by the outright embarrassing or blatantly shaming questions that have no positive value in any relationship or civil discourse.

Interestingly, Schein singles out the accusatory statements in the form of questions favoured by journalists. You can picture a self-righteous overbearing boss heading down this road. No doubt such unbalancing ploys are accepted unapologetically by the perpetrator, yet where do they leave the now damaged relationship? What hope remains for any gesture of grateful leadership when the questions of the powerful interrogator are designed to humiliate? Who wants to be “acknowledged” by an inquisitor?

Like humility, inquiry takes many forms. There may be a place for all of them somewhere, but many cross a line that should only be approached with greatest care. Humble inquiry of the kind Schein favours is almost always the best place to start because we normally begin with insufficient awareness of what is going on or why. Even with the most respectful intentions, we can still miss the mark. Every culture is different and people in other environments attach different meanings to proper form. Having said that, the time comes in many dialogues after the most important assumptions are in the open that other kinds of questioning are called for.

And this is why humble inquiry is often the start of more analytic forms of questioning. Schein discusses other appropriate forms of process-oriented inquiry. For example, if, once I received an emotional response I asked in an open, respectful tone of voice “Why did you choose to tell me about your feelings in this particular way?” That’s the exact phrasing Edgar Schein uses to start a diagnostic process inquiry.

Sometimes inquiry inevitably begins with disruptive conflict. But how much safer would citizens and society be if authorities began confrontational process inquiries with type three humble asks instead of aggressive tells?  Not that authority should always stand down. Whenever dialogue goes dangerously awry or critical information is excluded, the humble inquirer may need to reach for a more assertive, yet still respectful message, however, it must be delivered.

Aware of the questionable assumptions we make when we meet others or face unfamiliar circumstances for the first time, Malcolm Gladwell addresses the risks of trust in his new bestseller, Talking with Strangers. Tragedy often emerges from situations where the powerful choose to put their own interests above the basic dignity we owe our fellow human beings. Gladwell affirms that the risks of vulnerability are far outweighed by the opportunities made available by a trusting optimism. Nonetheless, we only justify our optimism and assume authentic grateful leadership when we learn to practice humble inquiry.

Nor is our consistent practice of listening skills simply a matter of knowing how to identify and practice humble inquiry. Schein remarks repeatedly on the culture of telling which discourages listening and frowns upon those who ask. The other day I read about an attending surgeon who downgraded the marks of students, stereotypically young women because they asked too many questions on rounds. Apparently, he assumed, they weren’t doing their homework.

Much of the discouragement we face comes from combining widely held assumptions with distracting filters unique to the individual. Sometimes we are rushed into unexamined acceptance in the interests of short-sighted efficiency. Recently I heard a radio discussion that opened with remarks about designers who try to accommodate the needs of disabled users of their products without first talking to any of their prospective customers. If we do not respect the authentic dignity of others our chances of becoming authentic grateful leaders are all but excluded. How can we see another person before we address our own filters and perceive our shared cultural impediments? How else can we truly see those we profess to acknowledge?


What role does gratitude play in your life? Gratitude Connection monthly and International Institute for Learning Senior Vice-President, Judith W. Umlas in her acclaimed books, Grateful Leadership, Using the Power of Acknowledgment to Engage All Your People and Achieve Superior Results and The Power of Acknowledgment, will help you see the possibilities.