Tremendous forces are radically re-shaping the world of work as we know it. New technologies, increased Globalization, increased Employee Expectations have created a pressing need for Agility in a tumultuous business environment placing huge pressures on Leaders for Performance. Leaders struggling to deliver results in an ever-changing, unpredictable environment attempt to manage the turbulence and a safe passage for all by in turn, pressurizing teams to deliver sometimes, unrealistic goals in a difficult ambiguous environment. In their 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, Recognition all take a back seat as the organization 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 organization. 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.

Appreciative Inquiry is an approach to Personal and Organizational Change based on the work of David Cooperider and Suresh Srivastav of Case Western Reserve University. The Appreciative Inquiry approach challenges the traditional problem-solving process within organizations that is deficit-based, leading to depleting of energies through gap analysis and blame games that at best generate solutions that restore the original level of performance. Instead, Appreciative Inquiry is a strength-based approach to problem-solving that enables the organization to raise the bar on Performance by releasing positive generative energies and drawing from the Life-Giving Forces of organizations- forces that are operative when the organization 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 organizational 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.

(1) The Constructionist Principle and Leadership- Words create Worlds

This places human communication and language at the center of human organizations and change. This principle acknowledges the fact that, meaning is made in conversation and reality is created in communication. Leaders play the most important roles within the organization of connecting the dots and interpreting reality for others. Leaders carry the responsibility of defining the world for those around them. Therefore, words, metaphors and the language Leaders use are more than descriptions of reality. They in fact 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 organizations? When things go wrong are we the beacons of Hopelessness instead of the harbingers of Hope? Especially during times of adversity challenge, confusion and insecurity are we able to maintain a climate for positive action?

2) The Simultaneity Principle and Leadership- Inquiry creates change

That the approach or nature of inquiry itself is the Change. 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 itself sets off the direction of thought and action and therefore Leaders must conduct the inquiry carefully with responsibility by understanding the impact of problem definition ahead of generating solutions.

(3) The Poetic Principle and Leadership- We can choose what we study

Organizations 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 organizations.

(4) The Anticipatory Principle and Leadership- Images inspire Action

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.

Like Einstein said, “If the mind can see it, the body will obey it!”. This principle is the 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.

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 the expectations of them, 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 organizations 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 places where problems are solved and change is managed with joy, releasing generative forces that raise the bar on organizational performance.

Leadership that cannot look beyond its nose, managing from quarter to quarter, identifying mistakes, placing blames and penalties with a fervor for driving performances must stop to reflect. 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 organizations 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 organizational 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.

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…

“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.