Appreciating Appreciative Inquiry

Holly AbbottUncategorized

This week, we’re looking into behavioural science, why businesses don’t tend to talk about it, and how it can help.

Appreciative Inquiry is a term that is, on the surface, a little meaningless, but the subject matter is incredibly interesting. It studies how the language and narrative that an organisation uses can “build psychological capital”. In other words, how you can motivate people by meeting basic psychological needs.

It’s not a new concept, and is based on 5 key principles:

  1. Constructionist principle – What we believe to be true guides our actions. It also means that the daily interactions between people in your business and the language they use helps construct the organisation. As an entrepreneur or the owner of a business, you may think that you are the chief architect of your organisation and its culture. Actually, it’s your people.
  2. Principle of simultaneity – Social structures and organisations are not static. The questions we ask help determine the future of a social structure. The more we talk about the organisation in a certain way, the more likely it is to follow a particular direction. Focusing too much on a problem can make it worse. If possible, focus on your business’ strengths.
  3. Poetic principle – This principle emphasises the power of story-telling and people’s personal narratives. Stories are very powerful in influencing how people view themselves, the organisation, and the world.
  4. Anticipatory principle – Simply, our actions today are guided by our vision of the future. If people predict a difficult future, they are likely to enter ‘survival mode’. If they predict a positive one, they are more likely to be creative and open. Perhaps this is why populists – such as Donald Trump – tend to emerge after periods of economic difficulty and social change. At Spirit Ventures, we recently circulated our 2020 Strategy to all of our team members, to make sure everyone was focused on a positive vision of the future.
  5. Positive principle – This is an assertion that a positive mood and positive language spurs momentum and change, whereas negativity just reinforces the status quo.

Chances are you can already see how Appreciative Inquiry has already influenced management talk over the last thirty years. This is the behavioural science which has led to management and strategic thinkers emphasising the importance of a positive 3-5 year vision for the business, a founding story for the business, and encouraging people’s personal development rather than beating them senseless. You can probably also see how abuse of Appreciate Inquiry can quickly degenerate into ‘positivist’ nonsense that prevents people seeing reality.

So, aside from what we’ve already talked about, how can you use Appreciative Inquiry to motivate your employees and build a better organisational culture? One recent article from the Journal of Applied Behavioural Science gives some insights into the basic psychological needs you can satisfy to help motivate your team:

  1. The need for competence – People want to be able to do something well. They’re looking for a skill they can boast about. Further, people get a psychological kick out of learning and mastering a new skill. It helps boost creativity. Focus on helping your employees build key skills, and encourage them to challenge and stretch themselves.
  2. The need for autonomy – People like the feeling of being in control: “People aspire to create and control their own reality without pressure and experience a sense of freedom and integration in doing so”. This doesn’t mean that everyone should run their own department. It just means that they can determine their own behaviour and their own response to things, rather than being guided by someone else. Where possible, encourage people to come up with their own working style and their own plans to deal with problems or opportunities.
  3. The need for relatedness – We all want to feel connected to others. Even massive introverts benefit from feeling that they are part of some form of social network. Encourage a social atmosphere and social links between your staff to get the best out of them.

It all seems like common sense, but there are plenty of businesses out there who take these three needs for granted. Understand how you can use them to your advantage, and you will be able to get even more out of your team.