HRO skill focus: Building trust through Humble Inquiry

April 23, 2021  //  FOUND IN: Strategy & Leadership, ,
Humble Inquiry is the fine art of listening, drawing someone out, asking questions to which you do not know the answer, of building a relationship based on curiosity and interest in the other person.

To humbly ask a question. It sounds like it would be the easiest of tasks among the arsenal of safety-focused skills required of leaders within a High Reliability Organization (HRO). In reality, most participants of the popular Humble Inquiry course now offered at Michigan Medicine find it much more complex, and more life-changing, than they expected.    

“It seems simple but it is harder to do than you think,” said Teresa Keppler, administrative director for respiratory care at C.S. Mott Children’s and Von Voigtlander Women’s Hospital. “When one of your team members comes to you with a concern and you’re busy and stressed on the job, it’s easy to ask them a quick question that requires a yes or no answer. It’s much harder to pause and ask them open ended questions. It requires you to be present in the moment, to listen purposefully and not get distracted.”

Building trust

What Keppler and others have learned from the course is that the Humble Inquiry approach builds trust, levels the playing field and makes human connections. When leaders ask open-ended, effective questions it reduces any perceived power distance between team members. This helps create an environment in which individuals feel safe to speak up, resulting in improved psychological safety.

“You pause to ask what they are thinking, rather than ask, ‘Did you try this?’ which is based on what you have experienced. Instead of fixing their problem for them, you become a sounding board,” Keppler said. “You step back, empower them and help them learn.”

The trust-building aspect of the two-hour course has resonated so well with class participants that the Quality Department team that offers the course had to double the size of current classes and provide additional offerings.

“We’ve already surpassed our annual goal within six months,” said Nicki Schmidt, continuous improvement senior specialist, who is passionate about teaching the course.

“This is a subject that’s near and dear to my heart ever since it changed my career when I was introduced to this approach when I was a nurse,” Schmidt said. “It creates an invitation to your staff that they are valued and they are heard. By being curious it allows you to shift the relationship within your team.” 

Applying lessons directly at work

Nursing supervisor Liz Jewell has brought the concept of Humble Inquiry to her entire team.

“To have new ideas, decrease mistakes and develop flexibility, you need to know how to listen and ask the right questions to develop openness and build relationships,” she said. “Our group does this daily as we do reports in the morning and the debriefing at the end of the day.“

Jewell cited a recent example of how Humble Inquiry got the team through some difficult times when five staff members either went out on leave or left for new positions, leaving the outpatient portion of the team dramatically understaffed. 

“I pulled the entire team together and stated: ‘We have a problem’ and asked how we could go about resolving this together.  All ideas were written on a white board and considered, ranked and discussed,” Jewell said. “By the end of the hour, we had an initial working plan that involved all of the staff in various combinations of ‘pods’ to cover all the patients we currently treat. I had no preconceived notion as to what the staff would come up with, I just had trust that they would come together to help each other to take care of our patients. And they did. Humble inquiry works.”

Want to learn more about Humble Inquiry?

While there had been a wait list for the Humble Inquiry Course previously, there are now some openings available due to increased class sizes — check the monthly classes here.

Also, two faculty development sessions have been planned for May 6 (8:30-10:30 a.m.) and June 7 (noon – 2 p.m.). To register, click here.

In addition, the High Reliability Leadership Skills training (SAFE-C90238) can be taken on MLearning as a refresher, either as a complete series or in shorter units. Humble Inquiry can be found in Unit Four. For more information, view the FAQs  or email

Going deeper

The Humble Inquiry concept was developed by Edgar Schein, Ph.D. To learn more, you may find this short talk by Schein or his book of interest.  

Humble Inquiry tips

Here are a few ways you can adopt Humble Inquiry in your professional life:

  • You can begin with, “I’m going to ask a few questions to understand,” to show your intention to listen.
  • Asking questions such as “What have you tried or thought of trying?” or “What’s possible?” encourages innovative thinking.
  • Ask questions for which you do not have the answer (versus leading questions).
  • Ask one question at a time, allowing the individual time to formulate their response.
  • Allow the response to guide the next question.
  • Remember to say “Thank you for sharing your concern or idea,” to encourage future sharing.