strategy+business Winter 2013 : Page 82

B E S T B U S I N E S S B O O K S 2 0 13 / M A N A G E R I A L S E L F -H E L P 82 to the importance of asking questions in a way that en-ables others to feel comfortable giving honest answers. A pioneer in organizational development whose work has been instrumental in shaping the field since the 1950s, Schein distills lessons from a lifetime of practice in solv-ing difficult organizational problems, helping people build strong relationships, and moving cultures in a positive direction. Simple and profoundly wise, Humble Inquiry, the best business book of the year in this cat-egory, has the makings of a classic. Although the book wears its learning lightly, its ambitions are far from modest, for Schein sets out to do nothing less than identify and address the root causes of miscommunication in our business culture. In his view, there are two es-sential problems. The first is our preference for telling rather than asking. Schein finds this especially char-acteristic of managers in the United States, who are immersed in a tradition of pragmatic problem solving that places a premium on efficiency and speed. The second problem is the high value many leaders place on task accomplishment as op-posed to relationship building, which can make them impatient with the slow work of earning real trust. In Schein’s experience, many leaders either are not aware of these cultural biases or don’t care enough to be bothered with redressing them. Schein believes that such attitudes have become newly problematic in a diverse global environment in which a growing proportion of individuals do not nec-essarily share those values, and in which teams are an increasingly common organizational unit. Despite the prevalence of language exalting teamwork, Schein notes that promotional and rewards systems in many compa-nies remain almost entirely individualistic. This creates an emphasis on star performers that can undermine en-gagement and trust. The disjunction becomes particularly acute when leaders simply assume that positional power ensures that their subordinates will correctly interpret and act upon their instructions. Those who take this approach are often content to toss off a pro forma request for assent—“Does anyone have any problems with this ap-proach?”—and leave it at that. Blinded by presumptions about the value of their status and unaware of the cul-tural and status constraints under which subordinates may labor, leaders intent on speed and efficiency often miss essential information. In high-risk fields, these miscommunications can have catastrophic consequenc-es, against which checklists and professional training offer insufficient protection. At several points in the book, Schein illustrates the potential for miscommunication by using examples from a typical British hospital. The operating team con-sists of a British senior surgeon who also works with the royal family, an anesthesiologist recently arrived from Japan, a surgical nurse from the U.S. who’s in the U.K. The high value many leaders place on task accomplishment can make them impatient with the slow work of earning real trust. because of her husband’s job, and a surgical tech from a working-class London district. Though each mem-ber of the team is a highly trained professional, these diverse individuals all have cultural reasons to avoid sharing unwelcome information with the surgeon. The anesthesiologist comes from a culture in which those with higher status cannot be openly confronted, so he appears to agree with the surgeon even when his experi-ence suggests another approach. The nurse is sensitive to the anesthesiologist’s status and does not want to embarrass him in front of the surgeon by questioning his decision to go along with whatever the surgeon says. The tech cannot imagine anyone on the team listening to a concern voiced by someone of his background and so fails to offer any views and just follows orders. Schein describes the various circumstances under which cultural and status constraints inhibit this team from engaging in the kind of frank exchange that their complex work requires. Though each team member has specific expertise, they all fail to use it to advantage un-less those with higher status humble themselves by ask-ing questions that demonstrate their reliance on others. He further notes that some variation on this situation occurs in every kind of organization, often every day, because even as leaders struggle to create conditions that promote free exchange, expressing humility can make them feel vulnerable. True humility requires admitting strategy+business strategy+business issue issue 73 73 best books 2013 managerial self-help

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