Leadership, Humble Inquiry & the State of Culture Work – Edgar Schein

Edgar Schein

An interview with Edgar Schein

The good news is that culture has caught on as a concept but Edgar Schein, a top culture thought leader, says it’s just as a “word” and people need to be aware that 90% of their behavior is driven by cultural rules and not personality.  He shared this and other key insights about culture and leadership in the second part of a recent interview leading up to the launch of CultureUniversity.com.

Misuse of the Word Culture
He is troubled by the misuse of the word “culture” and the “failure of people to see that culture is not this surface phenomenon, but it is our very core, that we live in culture, we display a culture, and we are always driven by the culture.”

Culture is Catching On (Good News & Bad News)
“The bad news is it’s caught on as a concept but actually just as a word and the word ‘culture’ is being used in so many different ways by so many different people that in that sense it has lost its meaning and therefore it is very hard to work with. Any time someone comes to me and uses the word culture, I immediately say, ‘what do you mean?’ Tell me what you mean by the word culture. Only then can we begin to talk about it.

The good news is that there is a lot of recognition that at the deeper levels, all groups, organizations, occupations, if they have any kind of a history, they do develop a culture. It’s as much a part of our life as personality and character is a part of our individual life.  Becoming sensitive to how norms and values very quickly become behavioral routines is a very important insight for employees and managers to have.  With that comes a further insight that what really stabilizes culture is what works. It’s not that the boss says this is what we’re going to do, that’s the first step, but it doesn’t go anywhere unless what they do actually works better.

If people can see that a behavior change produces results, it is legitimately called a new cultural element. Not because someone said you should do it but because it produces a result. Culture is built by feedback from the environment and internally by more comfort in how we do things.”  See more about his feedback on “Culture Catching On” in this video excerpt.

Leaders Create Culture
He believes that “culture and leadership are two sides of the same coin. When organizations start or when groups start there is always a leader who has a preferred way of doing things and those preferences by definition are going to be imposed on the group members. If you don’t like the way I run this group, I’ll replace you. The leader’s values and preferences are the first ways that a group or organization does things and if that works it becomes eventually the culture of that group. So in a very real sense, founders and leaders create culture.”

In an established organization, “the way in which they’ve always done things limits what a leader can do, even what defines a leader in that organization.”  A leader can’t just walk in and do things their way.  “The system will not let you.”  He pointed out that “once IBM is IBM, once GE is GE, only certain kinds of leaders will be tolerated. When Carly Fiorina came to Hewlett-Packard, she immediately raised hackles all over the place because she was too flamboyant, she wanted to do expensive stuff, so that limited the amount that she could do as a leader.  So you can see that culture constrains leadership in a mature company just as leaders create culture in a young company.”

Leaders Should Use Humble Inquiry
He believes leaders should not focus on changing culture but on solving business problems and he outlined this and other insights in part one of his interview.  His most recent book Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling outlines an approach leaders should utilize to build trust and surface real issues and potential solutions to those business problems.

He explained, “humble inquiry is creating a climate in which you display, through your asking genuine questions, an interest in the other person such that they will want to tell you the truth about what really is going on. Now why is that important? I think the major pathology in all organizations that I’ve seen is that upward communication is very faulty. Subordinates know lots of things that would make the place work better or safer that they for various reasons withhold. If you survey them and ask ‘why aren’t you telling your boss what is really going on, they’ll say 1) he shoots the messengers, 2) I used to tell him but he never really took any interest in it, or 3) I tell him but they never fix anything so I no longer have any incentive to tell.’ Now, if I’m right and that is the problem, the only way to cure that is for the boss to change his behavior, to go to that subordinate and engage in humble inquiry. Say to that subordinate, ‘I’m really interested in what you see in how we can be safer and better and what not, and I’m listening.’ If the boss doesn’t do that, we are going to continue to have accidents and low quality products because the information isn’t surfacing.”

We All Have Experience with Humble Inquiry
“All of us know how to be humbly inquiring. We do it with our friends, relatives, children and parents, so it’s not a skill we don’t have.”  The issue is “when we take it to the work place, for some reason we think we should now get stiff and formal. The switch I have to learn to make, if I’m an old leader and I’m dissatisfied and want to change this, is I have to wake up to the fact that these subordinates are people and I have to get interested in them. If I get interested in them and curious, the behavior will become natural. It is not a new skill, it is applying an old skill in a new setting and recognizing its relevance.”

Leaders Should “Orchestrate”
He had some interesting insights into why more leaders don’t apply humble inquiry. “The larger culture of management says: once you’re a manager, now you have the right to tell other people what to do which is really how a lot of young managers behave. They think, ‘okay, now I’m the boss, so I get to tell.’ This culture of ‘tell’ is very congruent with western capitalist culture because our whole foundation is built on the higher you go, the more you know and the more you can tell people what to do. Work now is a highly distributed process where lots of things have to play together for the product to go out the door and so it’s no longer a case of where the manager can tell what to do.  The manager now has to orchestrate, create relationships and make sure everything works together.

I don’t think very many managers have figured that out. They still think they’re the boss rather than the orchestrator.”

Leaders in the Field of Culture Work
He believes “the important leaders today are the sociologist and anthropologist who study actual occupational cultures.”

“I don’t see the psychologist doing very much. It is the sociologist who are doing field work and studying real occupations and real cultural phenomenon that are the real leaders.”

“It is case work that will educate us because you’ll discover things that aren’t visible and yet that are very exciting.”

When asked about whether he expects to see more of this work, he said “I would hope so, but I’m a little bit pessimistic because it’s so much easier to work with surveys and statistics and superficial stuff that it drives out the more intensive case work that the field worker gets involved in. So I think we need the field work. Will we get it in the business schools? Will we get it from consultants? I think consultants hide their good stuff. They don’t tell the stories that really would educate the field. So I think we need we need it. I think I’m somewhat pessimistic whether we will get it.”

Edgar Schein’s Future Work
“What I really want to work on next is: what is the relationship, what is trust? I’m working with a colleague now where we’ve been trying to examine this process we call ‘seeing another person.’ What does it mean for me to say, I think I see you now? And seeing how that process is integral to the relationships. When things don’t work, it’s when people don’t see each other clearly. I’ve also written some memoirs that lead to various kinds of small books, so I’m basically a writer and continue to write.”

Do you agree about the misuse of the word culture, the need for leaders to focus on humble inquiry and being an orchestrator, and his views about the field of culture work? {ENTER your comments below}

Editor’s Note: This is the second of two posts on the Edgar Schein interview. The post last week was on Culture Fundamentals. We thank Mr. Schein for the gracious sharing of his time and insights to support this interview leading up to the launch of CultureUniversity.com.

Interview Videos: See Part One – Culture Fundamentals (30 minutes) and Part Two – Leadership, Humble Inquiry and the State of Culture Work (25 minutes). Note – There was a theft of video equipment and we lost one camera angle so there are some minor issues with the content.

Interview Transcript: Download the transcript of Part One – Culture Fundamentals and the transcript of Part Tw0 – Leadership, Humble Inquiry, and the State of Culture Work (both include some questions that were not included in the video)

Like the content? Sign up for more…It’s FREE!

Our Privacy Guarantee: Your e-mail address will never be shared with anyone else. Education only, no selling of products or services.

Tim Kuppler is the founder of CultureUniversity.com and Director of Culture and Organization Development for Human Synergistics, a 40+ year pioneer in the workplace culture field with the mission of Changing the World—One Organization at a Time®. He leads collaboration and partnering efforts with culture experts, consulting firms, industry organizations and other groups interested in making a meaningful difference in their organization, those they support, and, ultimately, society.

Human Synergistics is home of the Organizational Culture Inventory, the most widely used and thoroughly researched culture assessment in the world, the 90 Day Ultimate Culture and Performance Quick Start Program, and the Annual Ultimate Culture Conference, the premier organizational culture event.

He authored Build the Culture Advantage, Deliver Sustainable Performance with Clarity and Speed which was endorsed as the "go-to" resource for building a performance culture. He previously led major culture transformations as a senior executive with case studies featured as part of the 2012 best-selling book – Leading Culture Change in Global Organizations. He was also President of Denison Consulting, a culture assessment and consulting firm. He is an accomplished speaker and recognized as a Top 100 leadership conferences speaker on Inc.com.

His 20 years of culture and performance improvement experience includes the rare mix of executive leadership, coaching, and consulting knowledge necessary to help leaders quickly improve team effectiveness and results as they focus on their top performance priorities, challenges, and/or goals. He networks extensively in the workplace culture field in order to learn and apply the latest insights from many experts. Email him to learn more about options to help you understand and evolve your culture with a direct and sustainable impact on performance.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Norman Jentner


    I want to thank you for the posting of your interviews with Dr. Schein.

    It can be difficult to capture the richness of these interviews, (esp. amidst equipment theft, I’ll bet).

    Again, thank you for your contribution to education at the leading edge of practice today. I support your efforts to “positively impact society on a global scale through culture awareness, education, and action.”

    Initial key take-aways for me, here, include the reminder that what is really needed to understand “culture” and to manage change effectively is real experience, coupled with continuous learning, not simply academic experience. This includes the personal manifestation of “humble inquiry,” with a constructive purpose. This is required, for starters, by the consultant as a role model for all participants, including organizational leadership. My personal experience is that this becomes a mutually supportive role that is learned, and re-learned… and learned yet again…

    I am looking forward to you and other culture experts, along with other successful top leaders, accelerating CultureU participants’ culture learning curves through upcoming contributions here.

    Thanks again for your launch and hosting of CultureU.



  • Tim Kuppler

    Thanks Norman. It’s been an exciting kick-off to CultureU with the support and great insights from Edgar Schein. It also further validated the need for culture awareness, education and action. The most significant learning point for me was to dive a little deeper into understanding “why” the culture is the way it is. Some believe you can just charge forward and take action (action is good) but you might miss the depth and scope of issues that must be addressed to drive change and resolve problems, deal with challenges and / or accomplish goals.

    I am looking forward to continuing the discussion and thank you for your enthusiastic support. A number of exciting interviews and other posts are in the works.

  • Norman Jentner

    Your CultureUniversity website continues to unfold very nicely.

    I also think Dr. Schein did an excellent job of succinctly and convincingly describing the importance of understanding why things are the way they are, including understanding what historic circumstances led to current approaches, and why this is so important for competent current understanding of culture, of potential changes, and of what change actually might entail.

    I appreciate your focused questioning with purpose throughout the interviews.

  • Pingback: How I Got Schooled On Culture - TalentCulture()

  • Pingback: Additional Information and Skills Utilized by Leadership Today | Business Culture Solutions LLC()

  • Marlene Chism

    So refreshing to know that we need to ask rather than tell… And we need to learn how to see each other.

  • Pingback: Leadership, Humble Inquiry & the State of C...()

  • Pingback: Humble Inquiry: The best kind ~ A More Beautiful Question by Warren Berger()

  • Pingback: How I Got Schooled On Culture()

  • Pingback: Organisaatiokulttuuri. Uuden esimiehen tuska ja onni | MIF Oy()

  • Pingback: The GM Culture Crisis: what leaders must learn from this culture case study()