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February 18, 2019

Ask more tell less for better communication

Ask more tell less for better communication
Ask more tell less for better communication

Regular readers will know that I’m a big fan of Edgar Schein, the professor at MIT Sloan who made organisational behaviours understandable. He’s my touchstone when I’m called upon to intervene in company cultures where behaviours are out of kilter. Non-governmental organisations that do good for everyone but their own staff and partners. Brands that appear bright and optimistic, while inside the business a deep gloom pervades. Financial institutions that trumpet values like integrity and transparency in the vain hope that doing so will counter their alternative internal realities.

I turned to Schein this month because I’m increasingly troubled by the complete absence of meaningful conversations inside organisations. I don’t mean the gossip at the water dispenser, or the convivial buzz of the executive suite. I mean the kind of helpful and purposeful internal conversations that signal a healthy culture. The kind of collaborative chats that ignore silos, bridge geographical separation between work locations, and run fluidly up and down the organogram.

Schein suggests that we need to become better at asking, and do less telling. He says that we work in cultures that overvalue telling. Yet we know that in life, the thing that builds relationships and improves understanding is asking the right questions. Good teachers and profound religious leaders ask questions. Wise men and women ask questions. Experts ask questions.

As we become more senior we often lose the ability to ask questions. Our modus operandi changes from one of intelligent enquirer to source of all knowledge. We can become dogmatic, and repetitive. And in that repetition we voice our own frustration, wondering why we’re still having to tell people the same things because they still don’t get it.


The truth is people do get it. They get it and move on. That’s why eyes glaze over and faces set when the leader begins to rant. An old friend who worked in newspapers for the late (and not so great) Robert Maxwell always described audiences with his leader as ‘giving Bob a jolly good listening to.’

Schein talks about the problems that occur in extreme examples of the telling culture. In BP when it spilled oil onto America’s shores, in the accident-prone NASA shuttle programme, and in major hospitals. What’s missing from those cultures is a climate in which low-level employees feel safe to bring up issues that need to be addressed in order to prevent disaster. You see it is especially hard to inform and correct superiors when a mistake is about to be made.

If this interests you, read Schein’s ‘Humble Enquiry’. We’ve all read the books that tell us leaders have to set direction, articulate values and devolve detail. But this book says leaders need to be best at asking the right questions and building a culture of trust. For without open internal communication, organisations can be neither effective nor safe.

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