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1. Appreciative Inquiry Is Only About Being ‘Positive’ ❌

On first hearing about Appreciative Inquiry, it might be tempting to dismiss the approach as ‘looking at the world through rose-coloured glasses, pretending everything is wonderful, and sweeping problems under the carpet.’

That’s a misunderstanding of the approach.

Rather, Appreciative Inquiry is a way of looking at things that makes it easier for people to collaborate and come up with more creative solutions to the very real problems that they face.

It’s an effective method for helping people, especially people in groups of any size, to access the mindset that they need for building an achievable vision of the future, and for devising fresh ideas to make it happen.

As it turns out, discovering what’s already working and doing more of it, in line with our strengths and motivations, is the most effective, and painless, way to bring about necessary change.

2. Bringing In an Appreciative Culture Means We Can’t Talk About Negatives ❌

Sometimes, the management of a company will enthusiastically adopt what they think is Appreciative Inquiry because they’ve fallen for the myth it’s just about being positive, which suits their boosterish outlook.

Optimism, dynamism, and being self-motivated no matter what are generally prized as leadership qualities. However, if you expect everyone in your workforce to demonstrate a performative ‘positive’ outlook, with no understanding or empathy for what they are actually going through or feeling, what you have is not genuine Appreciative Inquiry but toxic positivity.

If you have to smile and give the appearance of dynamism and enthusiasm to fit in with your corporate culture, even though you might be going through some personal tragedy or worried that your job is at risk, that’s a form of ‘emotional labour’ – masking the expression of your genuine emotions and faking what’s required to fit in with the demands of your job – which numerous studies have shown to be stressful.

For an example, take a look at this comment by ‘socksumi’ on a not particularly provocative YouTube interview by David Cooperrider about Appreciative Inquiry:

“Yeah like how to fire a bunch of front line workers and double the workload of leftover employees. Then use A.I. programs as applied psychology to make them see the “positives” of the change without them complaining… lest they be seen as negative or disruptive.”

If sincere, it sounds like the commenter had been on the receiving end of a badly implemented “Appreciative Inquiry” programme. Another commenter (the comment has since been deleted, unfortunately) complained that unions were not involved in the Appreciative Inquiry process.

If they were getting comments reactions like this, it’s apparent that crucial parts of the Appreciative Inquiry approach had been left out of the implementation. In particular, the Wholeness Principle reminds us that no one person in the organisation has a monopoly on the truth about it, and the perspectives of all stakeholders – including unions and disgruntled employees – should be considered and have input to decision-making.

Getting input from everyone involved actually makes decisions more robust. Front-line workers know things about the organisation that the senior leadership team will never see; similarly, customers of the organisation will be aware of truths about it that are invisible to anyone inside it. Those ‘negative’ or ‘disruptive’ complainers may be highlighting things that actually need to change, and if they’re persistent complainers, what if they’re doing that because they care about their work and they want it to be better?

So (with the caveat of “if we are to believe the commenters”) it sounds like the people behind that “Appreciative Inquiry” culture didn’t understand it properly. On this evidence, they certainly didn’t get the Wholeness Principle, and seem to have bought into the misconception that Appreciative Inquiry is only about positivity, and performative positivity (where people are expected to reply “Great! 10/10!” when asked how they are, no matter what their genuine feelings or circumstances) at that.

3. Appreciative Inquiry Is Only for Large-Scale Organisational Change

Most books on Appreciative Inquiry are written from the perspective of large-scale organisational development. OD is indeed where the approach originated, but it’s also great for team development and one-to-one coaching.

The 5-D format – the most widely-used model for Appreciative Inquiry – also works as an easy-to-understand guide for structuring a group or individual coaching session. It’s also easy to scale up for groups of any size, so you can use it at any level from individuals, through teams and departments, to the whole organisation.

Some of the applications that Appreciative Inquiry has been used for include determining future strategy with a senior leadership team, helping a team to move past a specific underperformance problem, minimising the culture clashes when two services are merged, and even eliciting more and better-quality information in one-to-one interviews and focus groups in academic research.

Here’s an extract from a research paper in the European Journal of Midwifery, Why use Appreciative Inquiry? Lessons learned during COVID-19 in a UK maternity service, by Rachel Arnold, a graduate of my Practical Appreciative Inquiry training.

Rachel and her team undertook a study into the wellbeing of clinical staff in a maternity unit in the South-West of England. The research was done in the form of an appreciative interview:

Staff were asked: ‘Tell me about one of your best experiences working here’, ‘What made this such a meaningful experience?’, ‘What do you value about your work?’, and ‘What helps you to thrive and stay well despite the challenges?’. Staff were then asked to imagine how these strengths could be enhanced and built on in the future.

Using appreciative interviews as a research method didn’t just elicit lots of useful data, the interview process itself actually contributed to improvements in maternity services by initiating conversations about what makes a difference and what makes it easier to do a great job. It also helped some of the professionals interviewed to rediscover their motivation and get clearer about their career direction.

You can read more about how Rachel used Appreciative Inquiry in her research, and the positive side-effects, in this article: How Change Happens As Soon As You Start Asking Questions

I hope this has given you some ideas for what to say to ‘preframe out‘ these myths before they even get raised as potential objections, if you’re ever talking to someone about Appreciative Inquiry.

As ever, let us know what you think in the comments.

Three Common Myths About Appreciative Inquiry

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