Appreciative Leadership – Positively Powerful

We are all familiar with Dale Carnegie’s advice in How to Win Friends and Influence People. First, he says, “You can make more friends in two months by becoming more interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get people interested in you.”  He talks about making others feel important by becoming genuinely interested in what they have to say, developing the skill of asking questions to draw others out.  One statement in particular is profound as we consider the type of leadership that really makes a difference: “If you and I will inspire the people with whom we come in contact with to a realization of the hidden treasures they possess, we can do far more than change people. We can literally transform them.”

That’s the power behind an emerging leadership model called Appreciative Leadership. In a book by Diana Whitney, Amanda Trosten-Bloom and Kae Rader (Appreciative Leadership, 2010), the appreciative path of leadership is laid out in a compelling case for a positive approach to leadership that builds on the momentum that’s already been created, what they refer to as the “positive core.” Appreciative Leadership was birthed through Appreciative Inquiry, an organization development tool that focuses on what is RIGHT with the organization instead of looking for problems to solve.  David Cooperrider, of Case Western Reserve University, introduced Appreciative Inquiry in the 1980’s and it is gradually gaining traction as a relevant model.  Whitney et al built their leadership model to coincide with Cooperrider’s assertion that

Organizations are centers of human relatedness; they’re living systems, alive with infinite imagination and the capacity to connect to a full and rich omnipresence of strengths. This problem-analytic set of traditions can be traced to the machine metaphors of organizational life, to Taylorism and scientific management, and it helps lead to some incremental learning and improvement to find out everything that is holding a system back, but it won’t make the breakthroughs that we need today. (ASTD interview, 2009)

Appreciative Inquiry and Appreciative Leadership are the next era in the evolution of management thought. In an August, 2010 article Cooperrider describes a trifecta of change emerging in organizations: a strengths-based revolution, Appreciative Inquiry, and positive organizational scholarship. People are ready for a positive change, a shift from negativity to hope. Appreciative leadership in organizations starts with the kinds of questions we ask. Currently the focus in organizations is on the question, “what’s wrong?”

Many of us are so entrenched in the problem-solving mindset that we evaluate every situation around us for the problems they present. We become judges everywhere we go. At a restaurant we criticize inefficiency, consider the empty glass in need of a refill, read condescension into the server’s tone.  If we manage people we judge our employees for what they contribute to the problem or what they contribute to fixing the problem. We become glass half-empty people, viewing the world around us with a lens of disapproval and start generating solutions to dispatch the problems quickly and efficiently.  This negative lens skews our relationships as we focus on what’s not working, what we wish was different about the other, what we believe they need to fix.

Appreciative leadership is a worldview that turns the judging, problem-centric world upside down and starts asking “what’s going well here?” If we can create habits of positivity we begin to see the world differently. Whitney and colleagues describe an appreciative mindset whereby we “hold each and every person in positive regard…treat all individuals positively…believe that everyone has potential. “  Seeing people in this light allows leaders to address situations as a starting point that can be a building block for future success.

Leaders say it all the time, “our people are our greatest asset,” but do they make decisions that way? Do they ask questions that way? I’ve worked for too many organizations that view employees as easily replaceable commodities rather than individuals with untapped potential. In the problem-centric worldview a value is placed on each person relative to their problem-quotient, or how much of a problem they are.  The appreciative leader, “through their words, actions, and relationships…start waves of positive change rippling outward, often to destinations unknown (Whitney). Dale Carnegie was on to something that’s taken nearly a century to take root on a large scale – tap into the hidden treasures of individuals – their positive core – and see how they truly can become the cornerstone of your organization’s success.

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