Most of us grew up with strong examples of command-and-control leadership. “Because I said so” is the emphatic refrain of this leadership style. In today’s world, however, it’s become a liability to manage people and institutions from this framework. The world is too complex and moving too fast for commanders to maintain visibility and control. Appreciative Inquiry (AI) offers a different framework, empowering people to share leadership and to coach-and-collaborate each other in the discovery and design of new possibilities. Want to learn how? Read on!
One of my clients, who owns and operates a small company and who is considering Appreciative Inquiry (AI) as a way to improve both employee morale and company performance, recently asked me to explain something that had been puzzling him about AI. “I can understand how AI generates better ideas by getting everyone involved in the search for strengths,” he said, “but how does one do that without undermining the employer-employee relationship? I don’t want my employees to forget who runs the company. How can we use AI without losing sight of the org chart?”
This is an excellent question for several reasons. First, it accurately recognizes that Appreciative Inquiry seeks to empower employees as leaders, at every level of the organization. AI is an empowerment model with a definite philosophy when it comes to leadership. Second, there are realities • such as who owns the company or who has what positional authority • that cannot be ignored. AI does not make this mistake although it proposes some unconventional strategies. Third, many people lack both understanding and skill when it comes to leadership. We want people to be motivated, industrious, creative, responsible, and smart but we are not always sure how to get and keep them there.
Fortunately, AI is a proven framework for empowering leadership, supporting organizations, and motivating people. If you are looking for a tool that will not only generate dramatic performance results but will also assist you to become a better leader of people, then look no further. Appreciative Inquiry may open doors that have long been closed shut.
AI accomplishes this by getting everyone involved in identifying and amplifying the positive core of organizational life. We have written before about the many ingredients that can make up that coreClick. Faced with difficult problems, when the tyranny of the urgent is loudly squeaking the wheel, it may be difficult to go looking for the positive core or even to remember that such a core exists. But it does exist, and AI starts with that premise in every situation.
So, too, when it comes to the appreciative leader. Such leaders believe and act as though everyone has strengths, contributes to the positive core, and adds value to the equation.
This simple proposition is actually a huge philosophical commitment of appreciative leaders. Whereas many give lip service to the value of every employee, most leaders allow problems and deficits to overshadow and eclipse that value in their attitude, communications, and strategies. As a result, they become distrustful and disrespectful in their day-to-day interactions.
Once that happens, top-down, management-directed problem solving becomes the norm. What else can leaders do when their followers are unmotivated, indolent, uncreative, irresponsible, and stupid in the pursuit of organizational goals? We intervene and micromanage them into submission. We take the bull by the horns with traditional, command-and-control strategies. If and when that fails to work, we end up doing things all by ourselves. After all, who else can we trust to get the job done right?
Sound familiar? We have all felt such inclinations at different points in time. But this is not the way of the appreciative leader. The appreciative leader is consistently and authentically respectful, trustworthy, and empowering of their followers because they know two things. One, there is a reason for what’s happening. And two, it will take everyone dreaming and working together to make things better.
The reason things are they way they are may not, of course, be immediately obvious. Different people will have different opinions, based upon their different vantage points and commitments. One thing is certain, however: everyone has a part to play in the current state of affairs. Organizations, like families and individuals, are systems, and every part of the system is connected to every other part. There’s no way to successfully isolate and treat them as discreet units. They must be taken and worked on together.
The human body provides a great analogy. Who or what accounts for high cholesterol levels? Is it our genetic inheritance? Is it the food we eat? Is it inflammation? Is it environmental toxins? Is it the functioning of our liver, digestive tract, or other organs? The answer, of course, is “Yes” • and probably a whole lot more. To single out and treat only one aspect of the situation is likely to be both ineffective and demoralizing. We can find ourselves obsessing about one facet of the problem while failing to see the big picture that may, in fact, hold out the solution.
It works the same way in organizations and families. To identify one person or process as the problem that needs to be fixed is, again, likely to be both ineffective and demoralizing. That’s not only because the analysis is flawed • it’s never just one person or process that is the problem. It’s also because such an analysis leads to increasing levels of disrespect, distrust, dishonesty, and disengagement. We end up throwing stones at each other rather than pulling together to make things better.
Systems theory has understood and worked with this dynamic for a long time, but it wasn’t until Appreciative Inquiry came along that people saw how a systems’ approach to problem solving often led to the same disappointing outcomes as more isolated interventions. With the best of intentions, a system-wide audit of problems is frequently both ineffective and demoralizing. People fail to open up, identify new possibilities, and implement recommendations because they see the audit as just another expression of command-and-control leadership.
In its place, AI recommends a system-wide audit of solutions with information flowing in all directions on the org chart. AI is not a process for people at the top of the org chart to learn what other people think and to pick their brains as to how to make things better. It’s not about getting information just so that the command-and-control leaders can make better decisions and issue smarter edicts.
When leaders approach the AI process in this way, they undermine its power and limit its results. The point of an AI process is to empower people up and down the org chart to see solutions and to dream together as to how those solutions can become a normative part of the organizational culture.
The story of Roadway Express is often told as a classic example of how this works. This large organization knows all about the relationship between management and labor. There is a clear org chart. But management used AI to empower employees to figure out a way to remain competitive. Employees from every job classification and from all levels of the organization participated in appreciative interviews, mapped the positive core, and self-organized into opportunity groups in which they crafted aspiration statements. The employees then created teams that planned, implemented, and monitored solutions.
Many of these solutions could never have been discovered by management alone and would have been stymied if they had to go through elaborate management-approval processes. Instead, by empowering employees to both generate and implement solutions, the company has increased profitability at the same time as it generated new levels of employee satisfaction, retention, and loyalty. In a competitive world of nonunion shipping companies, Roadway Express has used AI to make its union the driving force behind its success.
Does that mean there is no role for management? Of course not. But it does suggest something different than the old command-and-control structure. In that structure, employees are viewed as liabilities (they cost money) that cannot be trusted instead of assets that can create the future.
Once this changes through the application of Appreciative Inquiry, the style of leadership that emerges can well be described as coach-and-collaborate. It does not eliminate the org chart, but it changes how people on the org chart communicate, view each other, and work together. The coaching goes both ways, between supervisors and supervisees, as does the collaboration. As a result, solutions and partnerships emerge that no one had heretofore imagined or thought possible. Instead of using positional authority, those higher up on the org chart use their professional wisdom to create the synergy for success.
Coaching Inquiries: Do you hold a position of leadership? Are you threatened by those above, under, or around you? How could you shift from command-and-control to coach-and-collaborate assumptions? How could you learn to share leadership and decision-making? Where, when, and how could you start to get this moving?
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