I’m learning about Appreciative Inquiry and the power of positive focus. I vividly recall the first time I focused on an employee’s strengths rather than weaknesses in a performance appraisal. To this day it’s been the biggest success in my leadership career. Indeed it’s a catalyst for a more positive leadership style to enable change. One simple act of (authentic) kindness when the employee expected and deserved punishment changed her attitude and behaviours forever. Sabotage and passive-aggressive behaviour turned into a willingness to serve. Being ignored and gossiped about turned into being praised among peers when I wasn’t around.
My discovery of Appreciative Inquiry as a method to manage, or rather enable, came too late. I sadly and with remorse wish I had these tools when I was asked to become a leader for the first time. But that was nearly 20 years ago when there was no such thing as personal development plans or soft skill training. It was all about your technical abilities and following in the footsteps of the role models available.
Failing fast with management and control
My leadership journey started quite unexpectedly, with me not prepared at all. I worked to play and I enjoyed the freedom and ease of my day job, not specifically interested in more responsibility or climbing the corporate ladder. But then my manager resigned and I was offered a promotion at a big international firm. I declined, of course, not feeling competent to lead others. Yet, a few months later the position became available again and I was first in line. As before, I declined, but as if experiencing De-Ja-Vu a few months later the story repeated itself. It was as if the position was meant to be mine.
This time, I said yes.
The emotional impact of leading
I should have been ecstatically happy, but I didn’t like the emotional impact of leading. Even then I wasn’t mean or a tyrant and far from the worst bosses known to humankind. I remain friends with many of my subordinates to this day. It’s clear I just did what managers do. I followed the role models that went before me. It was the blueprint for management as accepted by society. I told people what to do, and criticized where they went wrong. I lifted my eyebrows when they were consistently late or unprepared. As if overnight, the relationships changed.
I hated how everyone kept quiet when I walked into the kitchen before I was included in the discussions. Also, I disliked how I felt when I asked a subordinate to do something and was met with resistant compliance or passive-aggressive behaviour. Behaviour I could do nothing about. I knew my subordinates did the work I asked of them because I was their boss. It was not because they respected me. I yearned for respect.
Most of all, I could feel the stabs of jealousy from previous equal co-workers like knives in my back.
Quitting From Leadership
I thought leadership sucked and soon resigned. I blamed management in general when in fact it was me who failed at it.
It never once occurred to me that there was an alternative way to management and control. I didn’t realize I could ask rather than tell when requesting a task. I didn’t even consider the possibility of pointing out strengths when a project wasn’t going as planned or I saw something wrong. Had I had access to tools like Appreciative Inquiry who knows who I would have become? But I didn’t. So I avoided leadership positions as much as I could and dedicated all my energy to finding alternative leadership styles.
Changing behaviours sustainably with Appreciative Inquiry
Today, more than ever before, we need more compassionate and inspiring leaders with the ability to manage change. We need people who are respected for their competence, not because they have a specific job title. It’s not every day that we need to lead through a global pandemic after all. Appreciative Inquiry is one of the tools available to ease organizational change. It is worth looking into for any consultant or manager. It is a simple, but surprisingly powerful and sustainable way to implement a vision or change.
The successes reported as a result of using Appreciative Inquiry include employees reporting to be 480% more committed to helping their company succeed, 250% more likely to recommend improvements in the workplace and 30% less likely to be absent from work.
Words create worlds
Appreciative Inquiry is based on and complements Dialogic Organizational Development as conceptualized by Bushe and Marshak*, a model I believe in and use with great success in the workplace.
Dialogic Organizational Development is based on the principle that conversations form a culture in an organization. When you change the conversations, you influence and ultimately change the culture. This results in a more long-lasting way than viewing change as a once-off project with a beginning and an end. Appreciative Inquiry, as created by Dr Ronald Fry, a professor in organizational behaviour at Case Western Reserve University interprets this by saying words create worlds. What people talk about most frequently, and how they talk about it, shapes the future.
When they talk about the problems and obstacles of the past, they will create more problems and obstacles to talk about in the future. When, however, they talk about the possibilities of a desired future, they will naturally start moving in the direction of that desired future.
The Brain and Appreciative Inquiry
Appreciative Inquiry (AI) is a model for organizational change and personal development that focuses on identifying and leveraging positive attributes and strengths. This approach has a profound impact on the brain, influencing both its structure and functioning. The brain’s positive response to Appreciative Inquiry can be attributed to several key factors rooted in neuroscience.
Positive Reinforcement and Neuroplasticity
- Strengthening Neural Pathways: The brain is highly adaptable, a quality known as neuroplasticity. When engaged in Appreciative Inquiry, individuals focus on positive experiences and strengths, which reinforces and strengthens neural pathways associated with positive thinking and optimism. This reinforcement can lead to a more positive outlook and improved problem-solving abilities.
- Release of Neurotransmitters: Engaging in positive dialogue and reflection, as encouraged by AI, stimulates the release of neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin. Dopamine is often associated with feelings of pleasure and reward, while serotonin is linked to mood stabilization. This release creates a sense of well-being and can enhance motivation and engagement.
Emotional Regulation and Stress Reduction
- Activation of the Prefrontal Cortex: Appreciative Inquiry often involves reflective thinking and envisioning positive outcomes, which activates the prefrontal cortex. This area of the brain is responsible for complex cognitive behavior, decision-making, and moderating social behavior. Activation of the prefrontal cortex can lead to better emotional regulation and decision-making.
- Reduction in Stress Responses: Focusing on positive aspects and strengths can reduce the activation of the amygdala, the brain’s stress response center. Lower amygdala activation results in reduced feelings of anxiety and stress, fostering a more positive and creative mindset.
Social Connectivity and Empathy
- Enhancing Social Bonds: AI’s emphasis on positive communication and collaboration can strengthen social connections. This social bonding activates the brain’s mirror neuron system, enhancing empathy and understanding. Stronger social connections are linked to improved mental health and resilience.
- Building Trust and Safety: Positive interactions and a focus on strengths help in building a sense of trust and safety within a group. This feeling of security can activate the brain’s oxytocin system, further enhancing feelings of trust and bonding, crucial for effective teamwork and collaboration.
Appreciative Inquiry aligns well with the brain’s natural functioning and structure. By focusing on positive attributes and fostering a supportive environment, AI can lead to enhanced neuroplasticity, improved emotional regulation, reduced stress responses, and stronger social connections. These changes not only benefit individual well-being but also contribute to a more positive and productive organizational culture.
Positive vs Generative questions
The appreciative aspect of the Appreciative Inquiry method relates to the importance of using a generative, or positively phrased question to interview people within the workplace.
The goal of this affirmative set of questions is to leverage the intrinsic motivators within each individual. It’s not as simple as phrasing questions in a positive light though. Rather, it’s phrasing a question to leverage the strengths of the person you are asking the question to in such a way that they feel empowered and included. Evoking these positive, or generative, emotions is often enough to drive the action without needing anything else, as a sawmill in America discovered.
The difference between a positive and a negative question can most easily be explained by how personal it is to the person being questioned. A positive question might be something unrelated to the person, whereas a generative question is something that refers to that individual’s strengths. It is personal.
A generative question asks the person to look inside to find out how they contributed to success. This will naturally be inspiring. Inspiring people is by far the most powerful resource for any leader available.
Immediate and impactful change – a story of success
A sawmill in America, which was one of the case studies discussed in the course on Appreciative Inquiry, was one of the worst performers when it came to occupational health and safety. They consistently had safety issues reported and decided to use an Appreciative Inquiry summit to improve safety at the plant.
In preparation for the summit, they conducted one-on-one interviews with all the employees to agree on a suitable topic for the summit. These interviews occurred about 6 months before the summit.
After the summit, the company compiled a report outlining the improvements and as expected, there was a gradual, and consistent, decline in reported efficiency for the entire year after the summit of about 50% that was measured.
It came, however, as a big surprise that the improvements happened before the summit, while employees were interviewed. The change didn’t happen as a result of the summit or the subsequent improvements. It happened as a result of the individual interviews with all the employees.
The change didn’t happen as a result of the summit or subsequent improvements. The change happened as a result of the individual appreciative interviews with all the employees.
What exactly is Appreciative Inquiry?
Appreciative Inquiry uses the power of storytelling and existing strengths to envision an ideal future collaboratively. It consists of four distinct phases, also called the 4D approach, based on an affirmative, and carefully selected, topic.
The affirmative topic serves as the guiding north star of a desired future state throughout the inquiry process. It is often compiled using a mini appreciative inquiry by the key stakeholders, as in the case of the sawmill case study discussed above.
The Appreciative Inquiry process starts with a discovery phase where you explore the strengths of the person, team or organization. Compile a set of three individual questions to explore the selected topic.
These questions aim to evoke a positive emotion associated with the issue being discussed. Phrase the questions as open-ended conversations, rather than a yes/no interview to evoke a conversation. What you are looking for is someone telling you a story rather than answering a question.
For example, in the case of the safety concern at the mentioned plant, the first question asks the person to broadly remember a time when he felt very safe at work, with safety being at the core of the topic being questioned.
The second question zooms into the issue and the issue is reflected upon more personally. Where the first question describes a time when the person felt safe, this question asks how they contributed to the safety. What did they, the team and the organization, contribute to the successful outcome? This is the generative part of the inquiry, asking people to link their unique strengths to the issue in a positive relationship.
The third question forms a bridge to the next phase of the process, namely the Dream phase. Ask the person to imagine a perfect future where the issue at hand no longer exists. What changed? What does it look like? Who is involved?
This third question is the key to catalyzing the desired change. Asking the person to talk about the desired future, inevitably pulls him or her to start creating that future. Words create worlds.
The second phase of the Appreciative Inquiry method is the dream phase where the possibilities of an ideal future are looked at in more detail.
A possible question could be to imagine it is a year in the future and the project is completed with great success. Everyone is happy and the company is in high demand. What made that possible? During this phase, people have the opportunity to brainstorm ideas to enable them to move towards the ideal state.
Rather than talking about solutions though, they create prototypes and something tangible to demonstrate the ideal future. By asking for something tangible, it solidifies the idea into something more real, which is the next step to drive action.
The employees help define the future and thus are more invested in the solution. By including them in the process, they are given ownership and authority to make the necessary changes after the summit, which is also an important part of why this method works so well.
The design phase follows next where people vote on and decide which actions will be implemented and which not on a more practical level. The dreams are pitched by the different teams and each person can then vote on the one they most feel will benefit the organization.
The highest voted-on items are now discussed in more detail, by creating an aspiration statement, something everyone agrees on is the goal. Actionable plans are brainstormed and the process is looked at in more detail to bridge the gap between the dream phase and making this dream a reality.
The final phase of the method is aptly called destiny. It forms the bridge between the summit, which was a safe, but removed, container and the real-world challenges. It is the start, rather than the end of the process which indicates that it is up to the individuals to take this into their own hands.
The employees are given the authority and ownership to innovate and implement change in their respective workplaces. This is also the key to sustainability.
Applying Appreciative Inquiry in the workplace
In the software development world, the retrospective is the allocated time to brainstorm solutions and problems. It is a dedicated timeslot every couple of weeks to reflect on past iterations and learn from mistakes to prevent them from going forward.
The typical retrospective asks two key questions: “What went well?” and “What can we improve?”
The team then identifies actions to help them reduce what went wrong in the following iteration. The pattern I saw consistently, however, was that in each following retrospective, more actions piled onto the to-do list and soon it becomes a blame game where it is acceptable to not deliver, as long as there’s a valid reason.
I applied a method similar to the Appreciative Inquiry and it worked so well that I’ve adapted all my meetings to follow a similar structure.
Asking The Right Questions
I discovered that given enough freedom, simply asking the right question is the catalyst for behaviour change and continuous improvement. The number of actions identified was a poor predictor of improvement.
I rephrase the questions into a more affirmative topic and present it as a central theme for the meeting. For example, rather than saying “We had a lot of bugs in the last iteration” as a problem statement, I turn it into an affirmative question such as “How can we improve our delivery efficiency?”.
We spend a few minutes identifying possible solutions, however, I’ve come to appreciate that the real insights only surface afterwards, similar to the destiny phase of Appreciative Inquiry.
I leave enough room for people to come up with their solutions rather than expecting that they implement the actions we identified in the meeting. At the next retrospective, I touch on the topic again, framed as a question with room for change, similar to what a coach would do with a client.
Ask better questions
Asking one relevant question is exponentially more powerful than an hour-long discussion to try and find the right solution.
So next time you have to deal with an issue, consider framing it as generative questions and see the change happen effortlessly.
- Bushe, G. R., & Marshak, R. J. (2009). Revisioning organization development: Diagnostic and dialogic premises and patterns of practice. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 45(3)
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With more than 20 years experience in the software development industry, Kate specializes in helping teams get unstuck, communicate better and ultimately be more productive. She believes in efficiency through fun implementing lean, agile and playful design as tools for process improvement and organizational change. Her goal is to create more happy, healthy and whole workplaces where each person thrives and productivity soars.