Appreciative Inquiry – Consensus for Change

A few disputes had arisen in a workplace where employees were dividing into their own groups. They seemed to have started with a lack of appreciation for what each group did, with each thinking they were working harder than the others. It was hard to blame them – each team knew their own jobs intimately but had little knowledge, beyond the big picture, of what each of the others really did or had to deal with. Inconveniences and inevitable delays became seen as incompetence or lack of care, and questions became seen as veiled criticism – which they sometimes probably were. The culture wasn’t yet toxic, but it was on the way.

A director of the company asked me to solve the problem. Knowing that I didn’t have the knowledge of the roles and specific problems, and to do so would have taken months and been disrespectful of the accumulated experiences and expertise of everyone involved, I declined. Rather, I suggested that we let them design their own culture. The neurobiological basis for this is simple – their truths are different to each others, and certainly different to mine. So for me to know an answer that they could have all lived without intense management (which wasn’t available) as reinforcement (not a good approach anyway), was likely to create incoherence and disengagement from the process, let alone the “solution” (Check out some other articles on coherence, engagement and extrinsic motivation for more depth in why this wouldn’t work.)

An ideal process for this is “Appreciative Inquiry”, a collaborative approach described by Cooperider and Whitney that involves the team feeling safe in each other’s presence, non-judgmentalism when feelings or ideas are expressed, and a commitment by the employer to be a part of the solution to the extent necessary (which usually isn’t as much as they fear). IN this particular case the sub-groups were all involved in the same discussion. As facilitator, my role was to draw out ideas, keep ideation going (which meant no criticisms) and ensure, to the extent possible, that everyone had a reasonably equal say. With a group size of near 40 this was a process pushed to its limits, but we were fortunate in that values and goals were shared – it was simply a matter of establishing behavioural rules and channels of communication to minimise tribalism, assumptions and misunderstandings.

Again, from a neurobiological perspective, that the ideas came from the team and were incorporated as much as possible without judgement into the codes of behaviour that would underpin a preferred culture and working environment enabled the people who were charged with executing the initiatives to also own those same things. Neurobiologically this involves insula activation as added weighting in the motivational process that determines effort and behaviours. If I, or anyone else, had forced a solution, it would have remained extrinsically motivated, being weak,m temporary and to a minimally-rewarded or penalised standard, rather than being intrinsically motivated, and so self-managed as an expression of who they saw themselves as.

There are many boxes Appreciative Inquiry ticks in NEURO-M principles, from satisfying the basic condition of safety, through to fulfilling, then and in the future, basic needs of connection, identity and, especially, empowerment. Appreciative Inquiry is useful for all types of change, from work-group to organisational level, from culture and behaviour through to how tasks are performed and how work is organised all the way through to complex and strategic organisational change.

Leaders may have concerns that by allowing the voices and needs of others in through Appreciative Inquiry, they lose control over process and outcomes. This is entirely understandable. It also adds time and complexity in planning stages, as does any consultation or collaborative process. There can also be a concern that employees may focus on the types of change that suit them best, rather than what is best for the organisation – but, if true, there is a greater problem with disengagement, communication and leadership generally. And for a leader to assume that they, through their broader organisational perspective, understand more about how change will affect individuals at a role or task level, might be seen as out of touch.

Those involved in “change management” will have seen the 4 classic stages involved – denial, resistance, exploration and commitment. Neurobiologically, the first two steps arise from the fear response and basic need violations at many levels. That people somehow naturally, given some time to get over it, move toward exploration, and then commitment, is simply unreliable on an individual basis. The stages of denial and resistance, as part of the fear response system, are inherently disengaging and disruptive. Concentration, behaviours and productivity are likely to drop as fear and the forming, or drawing from, resistance-oriented coalitions builds. Does any employer really think the upset of “disbelief” or the stage of “resistance” are good for any employee to experience? Instead of this damaging, high-risk, conflictual and disruptive process, Appreciative Inquiry goes straight to the third step, that of exploration, without unnecessary fear, worry or “resistance” activities.

The best decisions, the ones that need broad support, knowledge, experience and expertise, and come with the most emotional impact and/or complexity, require as much collaboration and input and ownership (intrinsic connection) as possible from the people most affected by those changes, and most charged with their execution. As an engaging, low-risk collaborative process, for me and for others who practice this technique around the world, Appreciative Inquiry is an excellent framework. In the case cited here, the team did all the work in designing their preferred culture, and the rules and habits that reinforced it. Management had to get involved too, mostly with positive reinforcement and recognition when individuals from different teams chose to help each other, but generally the culture monitored and managed itself. I did very little apart from provide a framework  for the conversation – the team, to their great credit, designed it, managed it and rewarded it. And, for them, that’s as it should be.