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.


Positive Thinking and Positive Psychology

This week I’m delivering a presentation on Positive Psychology at Work as part of an internal sharing session. We call them Truman sessions (mostly because we’re in the Truman Brewery) and they are a platform to share information across any topic which will be of interest to the business. I’ve only done one of these before, and that was last year. It’s quite nerve racking doing a presentation like this, which is about 40 mins long with time after for Q&A. But, you know me, I’m good with the spotlight. Seeing as how I crave attention (it’s why I’m in L&D after all), this sits perfect with me.

Earlier this year, I heard Sarah Lewis talk at #HRD11 and was very inspired by her work in positive psychology in the UK, and bought her book on Friday – Positive Psychology at Work (on my Kindle for Android naturally). I’m a few chapters in and thoroughly enjoying what she has to say. She presents theory mixed with a practitioner’s point of view and where she can highlights how some organisations are currently doing the things she talks about. For me, that’s a rich mix of material which I love.

One of the first distinctions she makes is that positive thinking and positive psychology are two very different schools of thought, and there can be a lot of confusion between the two. As she says, it’s a shame that they both start with ‘positive’ as this is the only thing they share.

So how do they differ? At it’s simplest, positive thinking is changing how you think so instead of being negative, you think positive. Positive psychology is about the study of behaviour and therapies that can increase a person’s sense of wellbeing to a positive and vibrant state. Clear as mud, right?

Positive Thinking

I like positive thinking, and have done for a long time. I am a positive thinker. I don’t tend to get dragged into being negative and don’t see the point in it. There’s a place for criticism, and for being angry, but I’m a firm believer that if you focus on the positive you can change the way you perceive the problem you are facing and the possible solutions that present themselves. This isn’t to say you delude yourself into a sense of all being right in the world, but you start to think differently about the work you do, and the interactions you have.

It’s akin to ‘positive mental attitude’ that sports people are taught. If you say self-affirming statements before you start a competition you start to engage the mind in a way to help you be successful. I also use the same idea when helping people with nerves over presenting. I find though, that it’s not enough to say positive statements, you need to experience a positive thought. The task I get the group to do is to recall a recent event that made them smile and made them feel good. Once they have this in mind, and can recount the experience, their energy levels increase across their language, their body language, and their enthusiasm/passion. I then get them to use positive statements which are more reinforced due to the positive state they are in. It works a treat, but it does involve some very clear steps in helping them get there.

Positive Psychology

As with other forms of therapy, positive psychology is about helping relieve a person’s state of wellbeing and how distressed they feel. The key difference though, is not focusing on the cause of the distress, although important, but using interventions to help produce lasting effects of feeling good. Feeling good is a very subjective thing, but through proven techniques, a person’s self observed state of happiness can move from being not distressed to feeling good quite significantly, and it’s often a lasting effect.

Such interventions are things such as a gratitude visit, writing #3GoodThings, engaging in social activities, and carrying out virtuous acts. Each of these, when done in a dedicated fashion, help to increase your own perceived sense of wellbeing. They make a difference to the way you actively live your life as you are engaging in activities that help you create a sense of positivity not just in the way you are, but how others interact with you, and the impact you have on others.

Both positive thinking, and positive psychology have a role in the work environment. We can use positive thinking in the way we conduct meetings, carry out annual appraisals, provide feedback and engage staff. Positive psychology is about creating work environments that are conducive to not just a healthy place to work, but a vibrant place to work – allowing people to carry out tasks without fear of blame or backlash for mistakes; not focusing on policies to enforce behaviour, but trusting people to do the right thing; having a socially active workforce that allows people to take part when they want to, bot because they have to; having forums and opportunities for people to express opinion that are heard, acknowledged, responded to and an action taken.

Using positive psychology to create change at work

Continuing my learnings from #HRD11, one of the sessions I found truly useful was delivered by Sarah Lewis. She is a psychologist and has a particular focus on using concepts such as social constructionism, positive psychology and strengths based views. She has published a book called Positive Psychology at Work. Regular readers will know I have a bias towards positive psychology, and I was glad to not be let down by Sarah.

The following is a summary of various actions that can be used within a work context. As usual, this is only intended to provide a base level of information, there are nuances and details that I won’t be going into, and as such, this should provide some thoughts for things currently happening that you would like to change.

Sarah reinforced the importance of seeking positive experiences as part of building an environment of positivity. Previously, psychology used to be about helping those with issues increase their wellbeing from a state of -5 to 0 (-5 being unhealthy, 0 being healthy). Positive psychology aims to help individuals move from 0 to +5 (healthy to vibrancy). As such, we should aim to have a ratio of positive experiences higher than negative at about 3:1 at minimum, and at a maximum 12:1.

In organisations, there needs to be increased connectivity. A powerful motivator for a lot of people (be you an introvert or an extrovert), is to be able to connect with others. This is not exclusive to physical connections, particularly now in the ‘connected’ world we live in. Organisations have to allow for their people to be able to connect in meaningful ways. This is not to be confused with making people connect. People simply need to know there are options available, and they are fully capable themselves of deciding how they want to connect.

We should build social capital. An interesting turn of phrase with a good list of benefits:
– Reduces transaction costs
– Facilitates communication and cooperation
– Enhances employee commitment
– Fosters individual learning
– Strengthens human relationships and involvement
– Enhances organisational performance
– Facilitates organisational resilience

If we allow ourselves to act virtuously and positively, we create around us a network of people who see this happening. People are easily influenced by others’ actions, and we have long known that phenomena like peer pressure are incredibly powerful in directing how individuals will behave. Similarly, if you see someone doing something positive and virtuous, you understand there is a benefit to this, and are likely to seek out doing something yourself.

We should create micro-moments of High Quality Connections. This is about intimate, meaningful connections where we enable positive behaviours to happen. The way to do this is to allow ourselves to recognise when someone needs our time. We had an expression at my old workplace called ‘be here now’. By doing this, you build a connection with the person you’re talking to, allowing these micro-moments to happen.

Positive Energy Networks. This was really interesting for me. Who is a positive energy network? What is it? Perhaps the way to answer this is by looking at what a PEN can create:
– A stimulated environment
– Attentive to others
– Energising those around them
– Responsive behaviours
– Being hopeful and allowing others to have the same
– Generating new ideas
– Willing to devote discretionary time

In relationship to change, this was a useful way for Leaders to think about it: Most successful approach to change is to understand and work with it as an emergent phenomena.