Appreciative Inquiry: Getting It Right

The mid monsoon forum meet in Pune was all about changing 'point of view'. Suman Nair, a seasoned Human Resources facilitator, demonstrated how practicing a simple technique can change focus: from seeking to overcome the weaknesses in an organization, to appreciating and leveraging the core strength of the organization.
Ms. Nair is Managing Director at Atiitya Training and HR Consultants Pvt. Ltd. In the last two decades, she has worked extensively in the Human Resources space in companies like The Ion Exchange, Pantaloons, Tracmail, GE Capital and Mastek.

Defining AI
Speaking on Appreciative Inquiry (AI), Nair talked about operating in the realms of positive psychology. She stated that it was in the mid eighties that companies began to feel the need to engage their people with the organization. Recalling an instance, where David Cooperrider of Case Western Reserve University and Suresh Shrivastava were looking for ways to rectify problems in a particular company. They were not making much progress by asking what was wrong in the company, so they decided to ask the employees about what was going well in the organization instead! This reversal of approach led them to a huge amount of data on what was working well in the company, thus establishing the belief that a 'point of view' changes the perception for any situation.

This reversal in the thought process proved that taking a problem centric approach to improve an organization may not be the best one. In fact, when you share what is good and is working well in a system, you create an atmosphere of focusing on positive things. This assumption forms the basis for AI. Appreciative Inquiry works on a basic tenet that there is some essential good in every form of life. Here we apply it to an individual, group or organization.

AI takes an asset-based approach. It focuses on taking a positive and appreciative approach to overcome organizational challenges. Simply put, AI is a strength-based approach to change.

Implementation of AI
Ms. Nair explained that to implement AI, you should first understand the structure of AI. The journey begins by defining the core. First you need to set a definite goal in which to implement AI. For example an individual may have a goal - 'I want to publish a book on the best moments of my life'.
The definition of the goal sets the foundation for implementing AI through the four Ds-
Ø Discovery - Focusing on the best aspect in a given situation.
Ø Dream - Envisioning a grand purpose.
Ø Design - Focusing on a plan to achieve the dream.
Ø Destiny - Focusing on the outcome of one's actions.

The audience, at this point, was introduced to a group exercise. This exercise demonstrated that when people are given the opportunity to tell their story - their passion clearly shows through. This passion forms a basis of strong interpersonal relationships and creates a rich environment for exchange of ideas.

While implementing AI, you also need to follow the Poetic Principle. This is to do with the choice of wordswhile asking a question, as well as, setting a goal or assessing a situation. Nair showed how the appropriate selection of words infuses a sense of passion in a statement. All it needs is a little time that is spent to make the goal 'poetic', for instance -
“My goal is to publish a book”
“My goal is to publish my dream book”
“My goal is to publish a book on the best moments of my life!”
The poetic principle determines the way a statement, question or intent will be perceived.
It derives from social constructionism to develop an approach that is energetic, exploratory and appreciative.

AI can be implemented anywhere
AI can be implemented in any situation. For instance, an HR professional can take an AI approach in any of the following situations -
Recruitment Process:
AI can be implemented in the way you ask questions. “Talk to me about your success story”, instead of simply saying, “Tell me about yourself”.
Performance Appraisal Process:
“In the past six months what do you think went well for you and what was your contribution to it”, instead of, “I know how you performed and what your rating is going to be”.

Each manager has his or her personal style but if the principles of AI are applied, then the chances of closing the conversation on a positive note are higher, irrespective of the rating. The employee will walk out from the review with a feeling of having been heard. This goes a long way in letting the employee know that his/her opinion matters.

While it is not easy to inject ‘passion for work’ in the employees, HR professionals can go a long way in making employees feel that they belong. An inspiring example by Nair was about a young engineer who instinctively used AI. While talking to an employee, the engineer learnt that he had a dream about earning enough money to buy a big red luxury car. The very next morning saw a picture of a flashy red convertible, on the employee’s board, with a note that said, “Good luck in achieving your dream! - Team HR”.

Intent drives AI
Nair stressed that intent is of paramount importance, in order to use AI. You must believe in the principle behind AI and have a genuine interest in the other person, to use it effectively.

Used appropriately, AI can help managers to show employees that their organization cares for them..For example, while dealing with a poorly performing employee, take a positive approach while talking about it. Ask yourself first, whether you trust the employee to be able to perform the given task and then focus on something that is positive in that employee’s work.

Nair stressed that AI does not work in isolation. One of the biggest challenges, while implementing AI in organizations is to make line managers feel, that they have a responsibility to take people along. AI does not belong in a checklist - it is a mindset, an approach that hasto be inculcated from within.

The right time to use AI
AI has wide applicability but the right time to use AI needs to be determined. In situations where emotions are running high, for example, an exit interview, where it is best to first assess the state of mind of the individual, and then get to AI when the other person is more receptive.
In the most problematic areas too, the intent is discover what is working well amidst the challenges. Everything one does in HR can be improvised using AI. It does not take a challenging approach; instead, it takes an exploratory approach.
Nair suggested that a starting point to practice AI can be by simply saying, “Mmm...that's interesting”. When a subordinate fails to submit a report, first develop a neutral playing field by saying “Mmm, that's interesting”, before jumping to conclusions and judging the employee. AI forces you to look at what is best in a given situation versus hastily identifying only problem areas.

Applicability of AI
One of the greatest challenges, facing leadership teams in the corporate world, is how to align passion in individuals towards the organization's goals. Line managers and HR management can work together to apply AI at every step and every process. This will help the employee feel that he/she belongs to the organisation, its people and the goals it stands for.

One note of caution – do not view AI as actions to be directed at someone else. You need to first apply it to explore yourself. Ask yourself, “Am I thinking negatively?” “What is it that I can bring to the table, what is it that I can do best or, what do I say and how do I say it? One needs to be mindful if we are practicing AI in a genuine manner. If done right, it can lead to opportunities to be a more effective individual, and you will be able to dissipate problems before they become challenges.

Interestingly, AI is not limited to the HR space. AI is also used by NGOs and is increasingly being adopted in prison management. On a closing note, Nair reaffirmed the fact that AI is not a template to be followed, rather a behaviour which is directed first at self and then at others.


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