Appreciative Inquiry and the power of the positive (by Marvin Faure)

by Didier Marlier on Friday May 11th, 2012

In my previous post, Social Constructionism and the Power of Engagement, I wrote about how we can create a healthy, upbeat organizational climate by favouring dialogue over monologue. I also built on Michael’s post on the use of language and suggested that if you want your organization to be more positive and optimistic, you should use positive and optimistic language. Such language however makes no sense unless it is grounded and meaningful to the audience. I introduce here a way to engage people from the ground up that can achieve exactly that, and can result in impressive levels of mobilisation by truly integrating Pathos and Ethos to the Logos agenda.

But first, a quick digression and a reminder of Marcial Losada, whose work on the non-linear dynamics of flourishing teams has already been mentioned several times on this blog[1]. Losada’s co-author was Barbara Fredrickson of the University of Michigan, who developed the broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions[2]. This theory contrasts the narrow “fight or flight” response generated by negative emotions to the much broader range of responses (such as creativity, curiosity, collaboration, engagement, exploration, play…) generated by positive emotions. The broaden-and-build theory thus explains why a pre-dominance of positive emotions leads to better outcomes in an organizational context, while Losada’s non-linear equations quantify the effect and provide the famous 3:1 positive:negative ratio that characterizes high performance teams.

Fredrickson and Losada have thus provided the academic evidence that people are far more collaborative and creative when under the influence of positive emotions. This is obviously desirable in organizations, but unfortunately, it is not always the case. We often come across the consequences of negative emotions created by a socially-constructed negative climate. Under these circumstances, the coffee-machine and lunchtime conversations are dominated by disagreement with company decisions, fears for the future and general denigration of much that management is trying to achieve.

Why does this happen and how can we ensure a more positive view is constructed instead?

One reason for the negative climate we often encounter in organizations is that it is an unintended consequence of problem-solving. Problem-solving, in spite of its proactive nature, often results in too much focus on weaknesses and threats and not enough on the opportunities and strengths of the organization. The result is the perception (or “social construction”) that the organization has serious problems. The more one talks about problems, the more there seem to be, and the more depressing the situation becomes. In the grip of negative emotions, the organization as a whole is in “fight or flight” mode and unable to see a way out.

So let’s look at an alternative approach, one that actively sets out to create a predominately positive and optimistic climate in order to get better business results, faster.

The fundamentals of “Appreciative Inquiry” (AI) were developed by David Cooperrider of the Cape Western Reserve University in the United States in the late 1980’s and the approach has since been very widely used around the world[3]. AI is a rigorous approach to managing change in organisations that differs significantly from the usual methods. Instead of focusing on what doesn’t work, and trying to fix it, the discussions are structured in order to identify what does work, in order to build on it. By setting the problems to the side and focusing on what gives life and strength to the organization, it is often possible to create new ways of working that make the problems of the past irrelevant.

Why does this approach often work better than more traditional change management?

At the heart of Appreciative Inquiry is a coherent model for engagement. The design is based on positive dialogue and the search for the “root causes of success” in order to facilitate the emergence of positive emotions and push the organization over the Losada ratio of 3:1. The inclusion of as many stakeholders as possible ensures that Ethos and Pathos are strongly emphasized alongside the emergence of a shared Logos[4]. The result is an open, collaborative, optimistic environment that is highly conducive to breakthroughs.

Talking about past successes generates energy, hope and a real collective desire to move in the direction of more success. Through engaging the employees in a positive spiral of success building on success, we can create a sense of pride and so much enthusiasm to build a better future that groups of ordinary people become extraordinary teams.

Traditional change management often fails as people defend themselves against perceived criticism and reject ideas “not invented here”. These traps are avoided by design in Appreciative Inquiry. There is no resistance to change when you invite the whole system to take part in sharing their best experiences and creating a shared vision of the future. Good ideas can come from anywhere in the organisation, and neither management nor the “experts” have all the answers. Management’s role in the process is to direct the focus on what is important, to encourage the widest possible participation and to welcome innovative ideas. These ideas must then be carefully evaluated and the best of them implemented as fast as possible.

If there is a better way to truly engage people in creating a better future for their organization, we would love to hear about it!

 


[2] Fredrickson, B.L. (2001) The Role of Positive Emotions in Positive Psychology: The Broaden-and-Build Theory of Positive Emotions. American Psychologist Vol. 56, No. 3, 218-226.

[3] For a summary of the theory and practice of Appreciative Inquiry, see Faure, M.J. (2006) Problem-solving was never this easy: transformational change through Appreciative Inquiry. Journal of Performance Improvement Vol. 45, No. 9, 22-31.

[4] For a reminder of the importance of this, see Didier’s Oct 2009 blog entry “How to lead on the three agendas”.

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