“All leadership is appreciative leadership. It's the capacity to see the best in the world around us, in our colleagues, and in the groups we are trying to lead.” – David Cooperrider
The world of work as we know it is being radically re-shaped by the greater forces. New technologies, increased globalization, and increased employee expectations have created a pressing need for agility in a tumultuous business environment, creating a huge pressure on leaders for performance. In turn, leaders struggling to deliver results in an ever‑changing, unpredictable environment attempt to manage this turbulence and a safe passage for all by pressurizing teams to deliver unrealistic goals in a difficult, ambiguous environment at times. In a zeal to deliver, it is not uncommon for leaders to over magnify performance gaps and failures, demotivating teams and depleting energies, setting them off on a downward spiral of despair and hopelessness.
Increasingly, the experience of the past is no longer useful for predicting solutions for the future, and optimism and positive energies have become the first casualties of this new business environment. Relationships, trust, collaboration, resource sharing, and recognition all take a back seat as the organisation struggles to stay afloat, and leaders who are the Fulcrum of Engagement experience deep fatigue and non-gratification for their efforts.
“The problem-solving approach directs attention to ‘the worst of what is’ and constantly examining what is wrong within the organisation. It is assumed that something is broken, fragmented and needs to be fixed. It is erroneously believed that if the problems are fixed, the desired future will automatically unfold.” – David Cooperrider.
Personal and organisational change
Appreciative Inquiry is an approach to personal and organisational change based on the work of David Cooperider and Suresh Srivastav of Case Western Reserve University. The approach of appreciative inquiry challenges the traditional problem-solving process within organisations that is deficit-based, leading to energy depletion through gap analysis and blame games, that at best generate solutions to restore the original performance level. Instead, appreciative inquiry is a strength-based approach to problem‑solving that enables the organisation to raise the bar on performance by releasing positive generative energies and drawing from the life-giving forces of organisations i.e. forces that are operative when the organisation is working at its best. Appreciative Inquiry is based on the assumption that questions and dialogues about strengths, successes, values, hopes and dreams are transformational. It suggests that organisational change is in fact a relational process of inquiry grounded in affirmation and appreciation. The Appreciative Inquiry approach is based on certain principles. The following four are most relevant, particularly in the context of suggesting what Leaders could do to manage teams and retaining positive energies during difficult times.
“Appreciative Inquiry is based on the assumption that questions and dialogues about strengths, successes, values, hopes and dreams are transformational. It suggests that organisational change is in fact a relational process of inquiry grounded in affirmation and appreciation. The Appreciative Inquiry approach is based on certain principles.“
(1) The Constructionist Principle and Leadership: This places human communication and language at the centre of human organisations and change. This principle acknowledges the fact that meaning is made in conversation and reality is created in communication. Leaders play the all important role of connecting the dots and interpreting reality for others within the organisation. Leaders carry the responsibility of defining the world for those around them. Therefore, words, metaphors, and the language used by the leaders go beyond descriptions of reality. In fact, they help create the worlds for their teams with their words. Therefore, the questions Leaders must ask themselves are - What are we putting out into the social discourse within organisations? When things go wrong, are we the beacons of Hopelessness instead of the harbingers of Hope? Especially in times of adversity challenge, confusions and insecurity are we able to maintain a climate for positive action?
(2) The Simultaneity Principle and Leadership: That the approach or nature of inquiry is in itself the change and that inquiry does not precede change. Therefore, Leaders must be careful of the direction they allow the inquiry to take by being careful about the first questions asked. The diagnosis of the problem by itself sets off the direction of thought and action, and therefore, leaders must conduct the inquiry with due care and responsibility by understanding the impact of defining the problem ahead of generating solutions.
(3) The Poetic Principle and Leadership: Organisations are like poetry- like open books with great sources of learning and study. Therefore, what we choose to focus on, grows- what we choose to study can create our world. As Leaders, do we choose to focus on results despite efforts? Do we choose to focus on mistakes? Do we choose to focus on what is absent or not there- or do we choose to focus on strengths, achievements, best practices, and in difficult times, stories of Heroism, Employeeship and Engagement? Whatever we choose to focus on and appreciate, as Leaders will grow within organisations.
(4) The Anticipatory Principle and Leadership: Human systems move in the direction of images of the future we create. The more positive and hopeful the images of the future are, the more positive the present-day action will be. Einstein has stated, “If the mind can see it, the body will obey it!” This principle is most powerful for Leaders grappling with the complexities of an unrelenting business environment that demands the onerous task of defining the course of action and motivating teams to work in new directions. It is, in fact, during times of ambiguity that the Leader’s ability to visualize how a new idea will work or how opportunities will unfold in the future, is put to test. The Anticipatory Principle is in full power even defining the outcomes of everyday decisions enabling the Leader to create a climate for action by creating positive imageries of the future.
The power of positive psychology
Appreciative Inquiry is rooted in the power of Positive Psychology. From the Placebo Effect that makes the power of belief triumph reality to the Pygmalion effect that enables people to rise to their expectations, both positive and negative. Appreciative Inquiry is a powerful philosophy for Leaders to get people to do best what they do best to create performance from Self Belief and develop real Leaders who can drive change and solve problems with joy. Appreciative Inquiry is a powerhouse of a belief system because it celebrates organisations as interconnected human systems all waiting to become expansive in their strengths and collective life-giving forces. Appreciative Inquiry is an approach that can make workplaces inclusive where problems are solved and change is managed with joy, releasing generative forces that raise the bar on organisational performance.
“Appreciative Inquiry is rooted in the power of Positive Psychology. From the Placebo Effect that makes the power of belief triumph reality to the Pygmalion effect that enables people to rise to their expectations, both positive and negative. Appreciative Inquiry is a powerful philosophy for Leaders to get people to do best what they do best to create performance from Self Belief and develop real Leaders who can drive change and solve problems with joy.”
Leadership that cannot look beyond its nose, managing from quarter to quarter, identifying mistakes, placing blames and penalties with a fervour for driving performances must cease reflecting- Are our actions constantly unappreciative of our talent? How do we generally open meetings? By stating disappointments and gaps? How do we react to presentations of new ideas? What do we say during Business Review meetings? Is our focus deficit-oriented, constantly focused on what has not been delivered? Not happened? Complains or feedback from customers? Some organisations have created toxic cultures with Leaders being rewarded for constantly badgering and beating up teams for performance. Such teams only get beaten down eventually into non-performance.
Appreciative Inquiry may prima facie appear poetic, not left-brained enough to drive real change or resolve real and complex organisational problems. Practitioners will however vouch for its wisdom, its deceptively simple philosophies that are in fact rooted in positive psychology and astutely defined to understand the ‘real’ levers for driving sustainable change.
Action towards a better future
An Appreciative mindset is not just about being positive, it is the ability that corresponds to intentional and generative acts. Applying Appreciative Inquiry is not about posting a label of good on something that is not good or about unreasonably calling a negative situation positive. The Appreciative approach does not mean pretending that terrible things have not happened to people. Instead, it allows painful memories to be viewed as history- not as the present and allow the Group to use the opportunity to create a different action for a better future. By framing reality in a new positive way, people open their minds to seeing new connections between ideas, people or situations. The rapid spread of change that leaders are experiencing today, requires us to continually search for new and innovative solutions to the complex problems we encounter. Experience has shown us that the ability to reframe, redefine and shift mindsets is a valuable skill for Managers, leaders and individual contributors.
Appreciative Inquiry principles provide Leaders a compass to help achieve new and innovative solutions through people that are sustainable. Leaders who believe in and practice Appreciative Inquiry principles can drive performance and change through the positive power of palpable life-giving forces that constantly help people deliver to the business while driving positive Change.
1. ‘Appreciative Coaching: A Positive Process for Change’ by Orem, Binkert and Clancy
2. Appreciative Inquiry – A Positive Revolution in Change by David Cooperrider and Diana Whitney
3. AI in a nutshell: Innovation Partners International
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