Insights into Appreciative Inquiry in the UK

Recently I had the pleasure of carrying out a series of interviews with leaders in their respective fields. With their agreement, I’m going to blog about the talks and share the audio and video content.

My final interview was with Sarah Lewis. I first heard of Sarah at a talk she gave at HRD some years back about positive psychology, which I wrote about here. This influenced my interest in the field due to the practical nature of her talk, and through her use of research to validate what she was sharing with us. It was very cool, therefore, that she agreed to do this talk with me.

Where did it start for you?

Sarah: I did a first degree in psychology and worked in the not for profit sector for a while. Through Kensington Consultation Company I came across Appreciative Inquiry as a change methodology. It has a very positive orientation – one of the main principles is that change takes positive energy. Positive energy is more sustainable than what we might call the negative emotions. It’s not to say they don’t serve a purpose because they do. I then came across Martin Seligman’s work and what he termed as Positive Psychology and the two just fit very well well together.

And did you build up your practise around appreciative inquiry?

Sarah: Well it’s been around for about 25 years now, and initially I focused on my work as a social worker. I used AI as a core part of my practise, and the learning and insight from positive psychology helped to build on that.

Do you find it’s a widely applicable tool (AI)?

Sarah: I think it’s more about preparing the ground for helping people to make the conversational switch to a more appreciative style. For a group who are demoralised it’s too much of a leap for me to say “let’s talk about good things”. People get very anxious when a consultant comes in and recommends doing this. You have to create willingness to work in this way.

How do organisations react to AI and positive psychology?

Sarah: Every organisation and audience within it is different, of course. With HR professionals I might explain more about the research. With a bunch of engineers, for example, I wouldn’t talk about ‘appreciative inquiry’ I’d just design a day and they’ll get on with it. From an ethical perspective, if someone asks me why I chose a certain path, I should be able to give a response based on either research or experience. It’s essentially based in a social constructionist view of the world, human dynamics, and people feeling positive and negative emotions, and of course talking about strengths.

Do you find people are resistant to doing this methodology?

Sarah: My experience is once people get into doing it that fairly quickly disappears. First of all it’s a nice thing to do, it can be a real pleasure from hard conversations. People begin to realise quite quickly something is happening and something is changing. Because it’s a highly participative system based approach, and people co-create, it’s something very different for people.

In your book you describe different ways change can be managed, and AI is one technique which seems to bring about the most success. Do you still find this is the case?

Sarah: Problem solving has its place and we do it all the time. By the time I’m asked to work with an organisation, the change methodology they’ve tried to put into place isn’t working, and they want to explore the potential for a different approach to change. Problem solving works well for logical problems, and people aren’t logical, they’re psychological, and that’s why AI works well for me.

There seems to be little in the way of training in AI techniques. Is it a niche thing?

Sarah: There’s a formal group in America called the NTL group. There are NTL approved courses in the UK and cross Europe, and tend to be 3-5 days long. The likes of Cranfield and Roffey Park have incorporated AI into their programmes. I run one day stand alone sessions. There are other options available, and you tend to only know about it if you know about the field. The CIPD do a Positive Psychology at Work course.

Do you find there’s momentum around this?

Sarah: I’ve just helped produce an article about the top ten tips for positive psychology in the workplace, and that’s been one of the better picked up articles. I think there is a lot of interest out there. People may not know how to apply it, and that’s why I wrote my bookto help start that conversation and to give people some ideas about how to apply it to the workplace.

It’s actually quite a practical methodology.

Sarah: I’ve found this is one of the areas of psychology which has broken the mould quite quickly. It’s quite an accessible field from the works of Martin Seligman, and Barbara Fedrickson.

Do you find links to other methodologies used by other L&D solutions?

Sarah: Mindfulness and resilience is addressed directly by positive psychology. Work is being done with the US military to help understand how to maintain resilience when you receive instant communications from loved ones that are distressing. They have undergone training to help them have better conversations with partners and family members at home so they don’t get upset.

When looking at organisations going through redundancies, there are ways to help people bounce back quicker who are the ‘survivors’. HR professionals are still having to work out how to apply this thinking. Day to day examples are hard to find in this area.

A current hot topic is around employee engagement. What work do you get involved with in this area?

Sarah: Positive psychology has a lot to offer the field of employee engagement. I tend not to hear it in those words, it tends to be around motivation, or redundancies, or morale. One of the key things is helping people feel hopeful. We know concepts like flow, meaningful work, using strengths, all help to create a sense of engagement.

We need to be careful of the cynical application of these tools. There’s a danger of people trying to apply these learnings which are not simpatico with the field as a whole. It’s a very humanistic field, about people flourishing. I have a feeling, that when people apply techniques in a cynical way, the currency gets debased very quickly. And then it starts to not work, and there’s an incongruity in the way it’s meant to work.

This leads to then leaders being authentic and have integrity.

Where do you see this all headed?

Sarah: I see it as a win-win situation, which makes it ethically possible for me. We all have to work for a living, so let’s make it a good part of our life. There are practices which are good for people, which help with a sense of flourishing and help organisations build social capital and productivity. What we don’t have is a coherent body of work which proves that.

There’s a shift in conversation in looking to the future and not just working in the past.

When you look at a lot of management based training, it’s still based on post-war models. You think we’re 50 years down the line, we should be re-thinking core models and theoretical frameworks that we’re working from. We’re applying post war thinking to modern day problems and issues.

Sarah Lewis has developed a set of positive psychology concept cards which introduce concepts like flow, positive emotions, strengths and AI. They complement the book, and they’re quite useful for management development work to discuss aspirational topics. Please contact Sarah directly if you’re interested. (

She has also written a book called Appreciative Inquiry for Change Management.

You are welcome to ring her to talk more about this topic on 07973782715.

She’s very interested in doing speaking work at in-house conferences.

If you’d like to watch the video recording of this, it’s on my YouTube channel.


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Sukh Pabial

I'm an occupational psychologist by profession and am passionate about all things learning and development, creating holistic learning solutions and using positive psychology in the workforce.

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