Taking an Appreciative Approach in internal communication

16 May, 2013 - 08:30
Author and consultant Ian Buckingham explores the effects of positive thinking in an organisation, using Appreciative Inquiry (AI) to look for the best in people, enhancing opportunities for collaboration and change.

By Ian Buckingham

“Brands are built from within; any chief executive worth their salt knows it, but it remains an uncomfortable truth for most marketing and HR departments. Brands, in practice, have very little to do with promises made through advertising. They're all about promises met by employees.” This quote appears in my first book, Brand Engagement – how employees make or break brands, published just as we entered the eye of the economic storm that has devastated world market for years since. Yet it remains as true today as it was then.

It may be an employer’s market and employee engagement reports may, on the face of it, be sitting at the bottom of the in-tray of many company directors desperate to maintain focus on the day job, retain market position and defend their post. But it’s an undeniable truth that, in the end, an organisation is only ever as good as the people employed. And sustainable performance is only ever as good as the way those people feel. So, data aside, leaders of genuine quality know that the route out of a recessionary spiral is to tap into the latent potential of their people.

Change management theory tells us that during times of hardship people “retreat to the village”, a metaphor describing the tendency of employees and customers, to revert to tried and tested relationships; approaches; products and services. In turn, supermarkets have started selling heritage food products again; seemingly custard sales are at an all time high; clothing retailers like NIKE have re-launched legacy brands and even TV programming has a rose-tinted halcyon feeling to it right now. 

Line managers are hugely important

Given the barrage of bad news people are exposed to in tough times ranging from leadership crises and scandals through to brand disasters, is it a surprise that we’re seeing little other than small changes in the engagement indices?

It’s understandable that first line managers in particular who are on the performance management frontline may often feel like proverbial rabbits in the headlights. But they have a critical role to play in slowly bringing about a sea of change in corporate culture that will eventually lead to better times. For most employees, they represent the pinnacle of the community at work.

Let’s face it, very few people can directly influence corporate strategy singlehandedly. But everyone can take personal responsibility for the way they allow themselves to feel as well as the quality of their interactions with others. And within a business it’s the sum of those small interactions and quality of conversations that collectively determines the culture customers experience.

The quality of dialogue counts

Here are some of my critical tips (recently listed by Acas on their website) for organisations struggling to connect with their employees: 

  • Give credit where it’s due
  • Keep the door open
  • Communicate
  • Know and nurture your people.

These were taken from a case study featuring a relatively simple but energising technique for re-framing dialogue between employees and their line managers in particular, Appreciative Inquiry or AI. It’s an approach to communicating that is based on the power of positive thinking and looking for the best in people rather than a self-fulfilling, cynical belief that all employees are purely self-centred or innately villainous.

Used effectively, it enhances an organisation’s capacity for collaboration and change. It’s a fantastic way of signalling an energising alternative to the depressing and draining, downsizing mentality of a recession.

Appreciative Inquiry utilises a cycle of 4 processes:

1. DISCOVER: The identification of organisational processes and behaviours that work well.

2. DREAM: The envisioning of processes and behaviours that would work well in the future.

3. DESIGN: Planning and prioritising processes and behaviours that would work well.

4. DESTINY (or DELIVER): The implementation (execution) of the proposed design.


An energising antidote to criticising

The basic idea of AI is to build organizations around what works, rather than just trying to fix what doesn’t. It is the opposite of traditional problem solving, envisioning rather than prescribing. Instead of focusing on gaps and inadequacies to find blame and remediate skills or practices, AI focuses on how to create more of the occasional exceptional performance that is occurring (and there will be examples), regardless of conditions.

The approach acknowledges the contribution of individuals, in order to increase trust and inspire best practice and aims to create meaning by drawing from stories of concrete successes with the potential of becoming best practices and lends itself to cross-functional social activities. It can be enjoyable and natural to many managers, who, let’s face it, are often sociable people when they come out from behind the badge. The idea of building on strength, rather than just focusing on faults and weakness is a powerful idea in use in mentoring programs and excellent performance evaluation.

Examples of AI in practice

There are a variety of approaches to implementation but I’ve found it a very useful technique at the traditional diagnostic stage as a way of re-building confidence while understanding the core issues. It’s especially useful within leadership communities that have suffered some sort of trauma that has affected them all.

For example, it helped us develop a powerful service proposition for a healthcare brand based on customer testimonials as well as a very well received leadership engagement skills programme for a client within the oil industry where a sudden spike in fatalities had crippled morale. By gathering managers together in groups to relay success stories they were proud of from their divisions, we were able to build on what worked before moving on to correcting what was missing. The same approach worked for a client mired in the GM food scandal as it slowly coaxed the executives out of their defensive shells and helped them appreciate the issues from the perspective of their key customers.

With another client, it was clear that the weight of historical political problems in the country of origin had somehow always conspired to de-rail any sort of positive change resulting in a deep seated cynicism. Faced with the risk of potentially squandering a multi-million pound advertising campaign and blighting the hopes of a nation however, in workshops with key players, we were able to focus almost entirely on the positives of past change programmes, tease out stories about individual initiatives people were proud of, link these to core values and track down positive role models of the desired culture the employees and leaders really wanted to create. The energy released has been translated into culture indicators that tell of a new vitality and the customer satisfaction and financial data now paints a much healthier picture. Imagine the potential power of an appreciative approach for under-siege employees in the financial services sector right now?

When introducing AI, practice what you preach?

As an organisation development specialist, I passionately believe that corporate culture can only be sustainably influenced for the better by:

  • Being clear about the desired culture
  • Providing people with the encouragement and space in which to innovate
  • Ensuring that the HR processes back them up.

It stands to reason that change initiatives, whether internally or externally driven, should role model the culture you’re aiming to create. With that in mind, taking an appreciative approach to diagnosing, planning, stimulating and reinforcing change makes a great deal of sense, especially during relentlessly austere times when bright ideas and bright sparks can otherwise seem few and far between. Good news is often infectious. What have you got to lose by giving it a go?


About Ian Buckingham

Consultant and author Ian Buckingham is the founder of the Bring yourself to Work fellowship. He works with clients across sectors and is a widely published author whose works include Brand Engagement and Brand Champions (Palgrave/Macmillan 2007/2011) which span the worlds of HR, Marketing and Comms.

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