Flourishing Culture

Book Review: Humble Consulting by Edgar H. Schein

December 8, 2017

People have been studying organizational behavior since the beginning of the 20th century.  Many cite the work done by Frederick Taylor in 1916 as starting the practice.  He employed what he called “scientific management” and did time studies to increase productivity.  Mary Parker Follett, known as the Mother of Modern Management, shifted the focus from studying how work got done to studying people.  She put people first, advocating for reciprocal relationships in the workplace based on trust and respect. While she was writing about the need for softer skills at work, Elton Mayo started the Hawthorne Experiments. These experiments, conducted in the late 1920s and early 1930s, are thought to be the first time behavioral science was utilized in organizations.  And, no history of organizational behavior is complete without a mention of Kurt Lewin’s work in group dynamics and force fields, and Douglas McGregor’s Theory X and Y.

Fast forwarding to the 21st century, there are countless people writing and talking about organizational behavior, leadership and culture. I don’t know if this happens to you, but I am frequently told about another book that’s a “must read.” This, plus the numerous postings on LinkedIn and articles in the Harvard Business Review can keep me from doing work that pays the bills.

Amidst the growing shelves of books on the topic is one author who commands a shelf or two for his books alone.  His name is Edgar Schein, PhD and he has been writing about organizational culture, leadership and consulting for almost 50 years.  Recently, I had the pleasure to chat with him about his newest book, Humble Consulting, published in 2016.


Dr. Schein is the Society of Sloan Fellows Professor of Management Emeritus and a Professor Emeritus at the MIT Sloan School of Management. He is widely known for his pioneering work in the field of organizational culture.  In his many books on the subject, he defines culture as:

. . . a pattern of shared tacit assumptions that was learned by the group as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal adaption, that has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think and feel in relation to those problems. (Schein, 2009, p. 27).

Throughout his books, he recounts his consultative relationship with companies such as DEC and Ciba-Geigy. Whereas these relationships lasted for years, he proposes that today’s rapidly changing business environment requires a new consultative model – one that provides help faster.  He offers this new model and supporting case studies in Humble Consulting.

Imagine this scenario:  you sign-up for a T-group. In the advance material, you read there will be no agenda, no specific task to achieve and no structure.  Perhaps you find the prospect of sitting in a room for seven days with 15 strangers and a facilitator a bit intimidating. It is designed to make you feel that way.  In the silence, you find yourself sharing both how you feel and how you experience the sharing of others. Through these interactions, you get in touch with your emotions and you learn how what you say and do impacts others.

In Humble Consulting, Schein states that his early experiences as a facilitator to T-groups inform his current notions about consulting.  He writes,

In the end I fall back on much of my learning in running sensitivity training groups in human relations labs for the National Training Labs . . . where the key operational concept was ‘spirit of inquiry’ and accepting that we did not know where our learning process would take us (Schein and Bennis, 1965). Building a relationship that enables the client to ‘learn how to learn’ was then and becomes now more than ever one of the crucial goals of Humble Consulting. (Schein, 2016, p. xv).

Schein puts forth the notion that a humble consultant has the humility to know he does not have all the answers. This understanding stems from the fact that organizational problems are complex and the consultant enters into the initial conversation with little or no knowledge about the internal workings of the firm.  Further, the client often calls with a request for a specific intervention without a clear understanding of the problem she is trying to solve.  Coming from a place of “I don’t know” and being curious facilitates the discovery and learning process by both client and consultant.


This approach marks a departure from the traditional model of consultant. It moves from consultant as subject matter expert to consultant who acknowledges:

I am there to work things out together, not to take over the problem and run with it.  I am there to empathetically honor the difficulties that the client faces and to focus on him and the situation, not on my own needs to sell myself, my skills and my insights.  This attitude can best be captured by saying that I am genuinely committed to helping and genuinely care for the client and his or her situation (Schein, 2016, p. 17).

Through commitment, caring and curiosity, Schein believes the humble consultant deepens the consultative relationship to one that is personal rather than formal.  Schein calls this personalization or a Level 2 relationship and suggests it is foundational if trust and openness are to be built between helper and client so the client feels safe enough to share what prompted the call.

Humble Consulting is full of case studies, which show examples of Schein functioning in the traditional role of subject matter expert, in contrast to when he served in the role of helper. The case studies are particularly effective when he explains the situation through dialogue, detailing what the client said and describing both his thought processes and how he responded.  The book also features a helpful primer on listening and asking good questions. For added value, case studies conclude with a section on lessons learned.

Bottom line, Schein argues that our fast-paced times require a different consulting model.  The humble consultant personalizes the relationship, is okay with not knowing, asks good questions, listens actively and creates an environment for joint learning and action planning.  The outcome of this consultative relationship is good enough understanding of the problem and a first next step.  As Schein writes,

If the problem is simple and clear, the helper should go into the expert or doctor role or refer the client to an expert or doctor.  If the problem turns out to be complex and messy, the client and helper should engage in a dialogue to figure out a feasible adaptive move, knowing that this may not solve the problem but will provide some comfort and will reveal new information on the basis of which to figure out the next adaptive move.  (Schein, 2016, p. 24).

Schein likens the series of adaptive moves to improvisational theater. Whereas a major intervention is like an opera with massive set changes, a complicated score and huge ensemble, Schein posits the improvisational approach — that is, tackling the problem step by step through adaptive moves —makes the consultative process faster.

In my conversation with Dr. Schein a few weeks ago, I experienced him to be consistent with the way he comes across in print. His speech is conversational and welcoming.  He practices what he preaches. He listens, asks well-crafted, thoughtful questions and reveals enough about himself to create a Level 2 relationship.  He truly inspires when he says his ideas are continuing to evolve and he has more books to write. If Humble Consulting is indicative of his future work, I know I will find a place for it on my bookshelf and make sure I have time to read the excellent counsel he continues to offer.

#edgarschein #humbleconsulting #organizationalculture #consulting


Natemeyer, W.E. and McMahon, J.T., (2001). Classics of organizational behavior. Long Grove: Waveland Press.

Schein, E.H., (2009). The corporate culture survival guide. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Schein, E.H., (2016. Humble consulting. Oakland: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.











One Response to Book Review: Humble Consulting by Edgar H. Schein

  • Thank you for a wonderful, thoughtful review.  You certainly captured my ideas very well and I appreciate that.  Ed Schein

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