The Power of Appreciative Inquiry
Diana Whitney and Amanda Trosten-Bloom
Berrett-Koehler, 264 pages, $39.95
Tojo Thatchenkery and Carol Metzker
Berrett-Koehler, 332 pages, $27.00
Diana Whitney, Amanda Trosten-Bloom and Kae Rider
McGraw-Hill, 228 pages, $34.95
Managers generally walk around with a what’s-going-wrong mentality. They are fixated on rooting out errors, and fixing those.
But what if they approached leadership with a focus on what’s going right? What if their goal was to build on the strong points in the organization – people, programs and processes? What if the focus was on the positive, rather than the negative?
That’s the approach celebrated by adherents of appreciative inquiry and appreciative leadership, a small but discerning circle of consultants and academics attuned to the merits of positive psychology, a new and important stream in the study of the mind. They argue that far from leading to organizational collapse by failing to fix weaknesses, the appreciative approach catapults an organization ahead by building on its best elements in a positive, cooperative spirit.
“If you want to transform a situation, a relationship, an organization, or community, focusing on strengths is much more effective than focusing on problems,” consultants Diana Whitney and Amanda Trosten-Bloom write in The Power of Appreciative Inquiry: A Practical Guide to Positive Change.
“It brings out the best of people, encourages them to see and support the best of others, and generates unprecedented cooperation and innovation.”
That book – one of three I’ll look at – shows how to employ the approach in organizational change. For example, if you are concerned about morale in your organization, instead of focusing on low morale they would have you look at where morale is high, and why.
Once you identify a problem, appreciative inquiry involves four phases:
- Discovery: an extensive, cooperative search to understand the best of your current performance – what staff are proud of and want to replicate. This is usually conducted through one-on-one interviews with staff.
- Dream: people collectively explore hopes and dreams for their work and organization.
- Design: participants start to formulate a new future by developing propositions of what they hope to achieve. Naturally, those are written in the affirmative – not what you hope not to do, but what you will do.
- Destiny: paths are developed to achieve those goals.
A hallmark of appreciative inquiry is large meetings, to gain as much involvement as possible. It’s an outgrowth of the notion of appreciating the ideas and efforts and differences of others. The facilitators try to bridge differences, having individuals pair off with or interview people they don’t know, so common understanding can emerge.
Of course, an appreciative spirit need not be confined to organizational change initiatives and other special ventures. It can be a daily part of your leadership agenda.
In Appreciative Intelligence, academics Tojo Thatchenkery and Carol Metzker look at the frame of mind that allows people to see the positive around them – to sense the mighty oak that can spring up from the tiny acorn, as they put it. By perceiving the positive inherent generative potential in something, people who claim they aren’t very smart have been able to devise breakthrough products, nurture top talent, or conceive a solution to a problem that seemed insurmountable.
Appreciative intelligence involves three elements:
- Reframing: the person develops a different perspective on an object, person, context or scenario. When everybody sees the glass as half empty, he sees it as half full.
- Appreciating the positive: that reframing is positive, of course. It appreciates greater worth in the person or possibility being considered – value that others have missed.
- Seeing how the future unfolds from the present: many people have the ability to reframe and the capacity to appreciate the positive. But people with high appreciative intelligence connect the potential today with the desired end goal. They see how the future unfolds from the present – that oak tree in the acorn. A sports or talent scout, for example, sees a future star in a young athlete or actor.
“Everyone has appreciative intelligence,” the authors note. “Identifying, developing, and enhancing appreciative intelligence in yourself or other individuals and applying it for personal or organizational success can lead to great advantage and reward.”
A third book, published a few months ago, Appreciative Leadership, adds further knowledge about this alternative approach. It’s by the authors of the first book – Diana Whitney and Amanda Trosten-Bloom – along with fellow consultant Kae Rider at the Corporation For Positive Change.
They focus on how to make appreciation your leadership mode, mobilizing creative potential into positive power. They stress that this is all about relationships. Relationships are omnipresent at work, and you must become relationally aware and relationally adept to succeed. Your positive focus will ripple out, through these relationships, building outwards.
Sometimes, of course, we approach these relationships sourly. We tire on the people around us. We give up hope they will ever get better. At best, we nudge and prod, with our anger barely suppressed. Or we work around them. The appreciative approach is very different.
“Appreciative leaders hold each and every person in positive regard. They look through appreciative eyes to see the best of people,” the authors declare.
“They seek to treat all individuals positively, with respect and dignity, no matter their age, gender, religion, or culture – even education or experience. They believe that everyone has a positive potential – a positive core of strengths and a passionate calling to be fulfilled – and they seek to bring that forward and nurture it.”
The authors share five core strategies:
- Inquiry: let people know that you value them and their contributions by asking them to share their thoughts and feelings. That probably involves adjusting your normal approach when asking questions, to frame them in a positive vein – which is more than just adopting a positive tone. Often it means refocusing: instead of fussing over employee turnover, for example, study employee retention, and figure out why people stay. The authors suggest you learn something they call “the flip.” When presented with a complaint or problem, shift from the specifics and ask: “What is it you really want? I understand that you are not happy with the way things are, but tell me what it is that you want instead?”
- Illumination: help people to understand how they can best contribute to the organization. Also, help them to learn about their own strengths and those of their colleagues. The authors urge you to keep a positive tone in the workplace. They suggest managing the ratio of positive to negative comments so there are five positive for each negative one.
- Inclusion: give staff a sense of belonging by including them. Reach out. That fuels collaboration, and an environment in which people feel they are a part of something. “When they feel part of something, they care for it,” the authors point out.