The Value of Appreciative Inquiry or ‘The Study Of What Works Well’

Appreciative Inquiry is one of a whole range of ideas and concepts based around the importance of using positive psychology and strengths-based approaches to support organisational and individual change.

The basic principle behind Appreciative Inquiry is to actively put our focus and attention on ‘what is going well’ and learn to cultivate and grow this through simple acts of appreciation. Fundamental to this is the underpinning belief that no matter what, there is always something that works well or is going well – whether this is in an organisation, in a team, in a process, in a project, in a relationship or within an individual. This means that when we find ourselves experiencing issues, problems, difficulties, resistance – whatever it may be – one positive approach is to be attentive to what it is that is going well. In turn, this can help us to shift our attention and avoid getting stuck in the negativity of what is not working.

Why is Appreciative Inquiry so powerful?

Left to our own devices our brains are naturally hard wired to scan the world for risks and to dwell on the negative. Psychologists call this our ‘Negativity Bias’, our natural tendency to pay more attention to bad things when these happen, to remember and recall these events more strongly, and to use these memories to inform future actions and decisions. There is no doubt that, in the far past of our evolution, a strong tendency towards a negativity bias acted to keep humans alert to danger and safe from many risks in the world (For example: Don’t eat that plant – it is poisonous, Watch out for that animal – it is dangerous, Avoid that place – bad things happen there). But in our world today where basic survival is no longer an everyday issue, a strong negativity bias can lead us to dwell on our own negative thoughts and feelings, and this in turn can overly affect us and our experience of the world in unhelpful ways.

So, practicing and cultivating an Appreciative Inquiry approach can help to rebalance and reframe our perceptions of the world. And the joy is that one simple way of doing this is hidden in plain sight within our use of everyday language. By noticing the words we use, we can impact on the experience and thinking of ourselves and also others around us.

Consider the following statement ‘We missed our target by 5%’. We may have heard this or even said this (or something similar) to others in our role as a leader in our own organisation. Clear? Unambiguous? Factually correct? Yes. But what is the underlying impact on the person hearing this? This can all to easily lead to an assumption that there is a problem, a failure, a mistake, an error….and to asking the question ‘what has gone wrong?’ and all the negativity that this entails.

So, why not reframe the statement by focusing on what’s going well. ‘We achieved 95% of our target.’ Clear? Unambiguous? Factually correct? Yes. And the impact on the person hearing this? It becomes easier to focus on what is going well and what has worked. Indeed, this more naturally takes us to the next crucial question ‘so what can we do more of to achieve our target?’ and, importantly, to committing to the necessary actions to make this happen.

And the particular relevance now?

As organisations, teams and individuals continue to navigate the emergence from lockdown and furlough over the coming months, there will be many uncertainties and difficulties to overcome. We will all, naturally, be on high alert for risk and danger and ready to react and respond in order to keep safe. Those of us who are able to balance this alongside an Appreciative Inquiry mindset and practice – focusing on what is going well, learning from this, and putting our attention on doing more of what is working well – will simply be more successful, resilient and effective in the longer term. For ourselves, our families, our teams and our organisations.

Why not give Appreciative Inquiry a try? Make this part of your leadership style and organisational culture? What do you have to lose?

Start by paying deliberate attention every day to noticing and appreciating what is already working well – in team meetings and individual conversations. Share your thoughts.

And then notice how this makes a difference to yourself and to others around you.

Jo Redgrave, October 2020

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