How Appreciative Inquiry Can Enact Self-Change in Your Team

A business leader talking to his team

In this article, Katerina Parpa explores the management concept of appreciative inquiry, using her own experiences to explore the impact it can have on teams and organisations of all sizes.


"What works here? What have we learned from this situation? What did we like about it and how can we improve next time?"

As a business leader, it's highly likely that, following the conclusion of a particular project, you may have put forward some of these queries with your team. If so, then you wouldn't be alone; these questions are examples of appreciative inquiry (AI), a model that many organisations are using to engage their teams in self-determined change and positively transform their work environment. 

Indeed, according to research conducted by academics Marcial Losada and Emily Heaphy, asking questions such as these can encourage your team members to enhance their own performance. The research, which was featured in Harvard Business Review, examined the role of positivity and connectivity in the performance of business teams, discovering that the ideal proportion of praise to constructive criticism rests somewhere around 5.6 positive comments to every one negative.

Therefore, for a business team to perform at its best, it needs to apply more than five positive comments for every criticism. But as a team leader, how easy is it to monitor your criticisms when mistakes are clearly being made? And what sort of positive comments can you deliver when a project doesn't produce the desired results? Do you need to apply motivational methods and techniques, or do you require an entire shift in perspective and attitude?

This is where appreciative inquiry comes in.

What Is Appreciative Inquiry?

Before we can consider the answers to these questions, we first need to understand what precisely appreciative inquiry is. Developed in 1987 at Case Western Reserve University's department of organisational behaviour, it grew to revolutionise the area of organisational development and the rise of positive organisation studies.  

At its core, AI is about practising positive perspectives and looking for the good in people and situations. It is less about changing the methods of an organisation, and more about changing the perspective of leaders and their teams. This, in turn, then shifts an organisation towards positive change. It is about seeing the possibilities, strengths, and successes of the human resources of an organisation, and encouraging self-determined exploration and discovery of the opportunity-rich world which surrounds us. 

That combination of words – "self-determined" – is the key here. Rather than instructing employees to enact change, you, as a leader, must indirectly inspire your employees to initiate that change and development on their own. 

The Principles of Appreciative Inquiry

AI is composed of five original principles – constructionist, simultaneity, anticipatory, poetic, and positive – which are then applied in a 5-Ds cycle: discover, dream, design, destiny, and define. But what does this all mean?

The constructionist principle can be summarised as "reality created through language and conversations"; in other words, our words create worlds. The simultaneity principle is based on the theory that inquiries are the catalyst for creating change. When we question, we shift. The anticipatory principle supports the idea that vision, or images, move people towards action, and the more positive the vision for the future is, the more driven human systems are to reach it, resulting in a more positive present. 

The positive principle suggests that a great amount of positivity and team engagement is required, regardless of the size of the shift – a principle that supports Losada's and Heaphy's assertion of the 1:5.6 ratio for creating positive change. Therefore, if an organisation has been exposed to toxic and demotivating leadership tactics, it will require an enormous enema of positivity to expel all the toxicity from its human systems. Finally, the poetic principle supports the theory that the information we choose to absorb creates our environment. More specifically, what we choose to study has an impact on the change we want to see.

In principle, positive words, positive images, positive information, and team bonding create positive actions. Sounds simple, right?

How Does AI Work Practically?

We mentioned earlier the AI 5-Ds cycle. The first step – to define – dictates that you choose what the topic of inquiry and focus is, and what direction you want the change to go.

The second step is to discover; to inquire into what is working by asking questions such as:

  • "What is already successful?"
  • "What do we have to work with that is already good?"
  • "What about your performance are you happy about?"

The third step is to dream; to imagine the possibilities of how successful a project could be. This can be accomplished by asking questions such as:

  • "How amazing would it be if…"
  • "How can we make this even better?"
  • "What are the strengths we already have that can be maximised to get to the next level?"
  • "How would it look if this was possible?"

Many organisations, in their efforts to control their cash flow and reduce costs, discourage big visions and "dreaming". This has a detrimental impact on motivation, productivity and team morale.

The fourth step of the cycle is to design; to agree what the ideal result is, to protract the best out of what you currently have, and to push the vision of how it can be developed. Decide on the ideal result you can achieve through fully appreciating the resources you already have.

The fifth and final step to reaching a complete and positive result is destiny. In other words, commit to how you will deliver the result and insert it in the different areas of your plan.

A Case Study: How Criticism Shaped My Leadership Style

Let's face it, most of us in the corporate world – myself included – have been taught to keep our eyes out for problems, little mistakes, and details that have fallen through the cracks. As an editor, my 'eagle eye' is trained to nitpick at a document or report, even when not assigned to proofread it. I may even lose my concentration during someone's presentation due to a typo on their screen, itching to interrupt them mid-presentation to fix the offending 'there' instead of 'their'. If a book is badly written or edited, I can't finish reading it, as I find myself mentally rewriting entire sections so that they make more sense.

I have been on the receiving end of such an approach, too. In truth, I've had my work dissected and picked apart time and time again by chief editors in the past, and their leadership style has, in a way, shaped mine.

Not so long ago, however, I reflected on this and realised that the editors who made the most positive impact in my journey were the ones who approached their employees' work intending to help them improve and encourage solutions, rather than crush efforts and force their way. As a result, I decided to make a conscious effort to adopt a "mentoring" approach when working with people. I wanted to be able to work together in building the vision of various projects with my team, celebrate together when projects were completed, and build team fulfilment and satisfaction. This led to my discovery and application of appreciative inquiry.

AI has been used across the globe to create positive change in work and personal relationships and has the ability to influence your one-to-one mentoring and team leadership, as well as the development of your wider organisation.

It has the transformative power to positively impact large and small companies, enhance team performance, and inspire innovation for strategic planning. It is a philosophy to live by rather than a method or technique to apply. In some areas, it can be a slow process towards positive change, and in others, you can witness an immediate shift. Could this be something worth trying out with your team? Imagine the possibilities if you do.


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