Appreciative Inquiry: Examples at Individual Level

Column by Elena Yang

We can use Appreciative Inquiry principles for personal encounters.

A group leader’s administrative assistant is a young and competent woman.

But between her various personal needs, grandparents’ and parents’ illnesses, young children’s school delays and days-home, husband’s inability to support, and the organization’s constant demands of this training and that new requirement, she was not reliably at her desk answering phone calls, which made frustrated others trying to collaborate with the group. 

Should the group leader reprimand her? Lecture her? Tell her to shape up or else?  

Look for a new assistant and suffer a 6-month wait before replacement can be found? None of these would likely bring improved performance for the assistant or the group. 

Instead, the leader talked with the admin about how they can structure her time in such a way that at least for a couple of hours a day, a fixed period, people could rely on her presence in the office. 

So it worked, for a while. But eventually, the personal stuff kept intruding and the admin could not stick to the structure. AI is not a panacea. 

I worked with a small organization during a time when it was certain that one (troublesome) employee had to go even though she was very good for the initial few years. 

I was brought in to help the organization to regroup, and wasn’t expected to issue the let-go to the employee in question. 

However, when I had to interview this employee — she still thought she would stay — she was very scared about the future. 

So, I asked her to describe how she came to the current organization from out of town, and built a pretty good program. 

Then, recalling that she had herself disclosed her recent divorce, I further nudged her to think about how she mustered the courage to end the abusive relationship. 

Both of these questions were meant to encourage her to focus on her strengths. Toward the end of our conversation, she began to sketch ways in which she could mobilize her vast network to find other opportunities. 

A couple days later, she tendered her resignation. I don’t know how things are for this individual currently (according to the grapevine she landed on her feet, at least initially), but the small organization is happier and thriving. 

These examples are illustrations of snapshots of a period or a point in time. However transformative an experience can be, once it is done, it’s no longer transformative.

Appreciative inquiry is both a philosophy and a process by which to change oneself and/or organizations. It is not to be treated as a one-shot deal. 

Everyone says that changes are difficult — indeed they are — but I’d say, sustaining the changes is a lot more challenging.  

And no, there isn’t a magic wand, no 12-step manuals, despite retail bookstores. When I read the book, “The Knowing-Doing Gap:  How smart companies turn knowledge into action” by Jeffrey Pfeffer & Robert Sutton, I hoped for some magic bullets, but alas, reading such a title does not substitute for doing

Next time, I will relate the gist of this book. Till then,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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