So, can a question change your life? Well, we sat with the leadership team of a large company of over 16,000 people and listened as they described the problem they wanted us to fix.
The mood was sombre, the energy low. The essence of their “problem” was that with the pandemic over and it now being safe to come back to the office, their people simply didn’t want to. We have tried to understand the problem ourselves, but we don’t seem to be getting anywhere.
The leadership team were surprised when we challenged them by saying, maybe part of the problem, is the questions you’re asking. It was a bold thing to say, but they seemed to respond with curiosity, which is exactly what we hoped they would do.
Our brain has an evolutionary wiring to seek out problems and challenges, so we can find solutions and fix them with the goal of staying safe. Often referred to as the negativity bias, it explains our tendency to focus on problems rather than possibilities. Most people and organisations approach development with a problem-orientated lens with research suggesting that we focus about 80% of our attention trying to fix what’s not working. Spending our time focusing on problems can leave us feeling depleted, discouraged, and drained of energy. It can even lead to a blame culture and learnt helplessness.
So, with that in mind, we proposed coming at the problem from a different angle. We suggested using a strengths-based lens, one that seeks out the positive and possible. We were proposing to engage all 16,000 of their staff in an Appreciative Inquiry summit.
Appreciative Inquiry (AI) is a simple, yet powerful tool developed by the great David Cooperrider. It shifts our mindset away from filling the gaps defined by exploring problems to opening energy-filling generative conversations that seek positive possibilities.
David Cooperrider’s framework starts by asking us to discover the best of what has been, how something was when it was at its best. This step supports us to adopt a strengths-based lens, to explore all the amazing things we already have that we can build on.
In our AI summit, we asked people to reflect on pre-covid working, encouraging them to think about the positives of that time. People remembered the support they received whilst in the office, spending time with friends and colleagues, eating lunch together, catching up whilst grabbing refreshments, feeling a sense of connection and being able to easily collaborate and get things done. They were remembering the oxytocin moments, that release of the hormone that strengthens human bonds and connections.
When we look for the positive and possible, it shapes how we engage in our experiences and has the power to increase our well-being and our quality of life. Step 2 is to dream of what is possible. When we look to our future how do we want it to be, how do we want to feel? This puts us in control, enables us to curate a positive vision of what could be, and it fills us with hope and joy.
In our AI summit, people dreamed about how it would look and feel for themselves, and how it would serve their well-being, autonomy, and agency. There was a real sense of curiosity as they also explored how hybrid working would look and feel for their colleagues, clients, and company.
Step 3 is designing the pathway that will take you from where you are, to where you want to go. When our negativity bias is in full flow, we can’t get creative. We made sure each person had explicit permission to innovate and not be held back by “what if” constraints. This resulted in some incredibly innovative ideas and solutions.
Step 4 is to deploy; here we are taking the first step. These are the tangible actions that will take you to your dream.
What I always find exciting about AI at a larger scale level is, because we are doing change with people and not to people, they support the implementation. They move toward the change because it’s positive, it’s theirs, and they own it. In this case, they shaped the ideas, so it was adopted and embedded with ease and acceptance.
The World Health Organization (WHO) considers work as a determinant of health which of course shapes our well-being both in and outside of our workplaces. Business leaders are being required to do more to support the well-being of their staff. Not only does this help the moral component of the employer brand but it has a harder business edge because when we feel good, we perform at our best.
Well-being is complex and interconnected, with many factors to consider when it comes to experiencing human flourishing, the optimal state of wellness, and the questions we ask have the power to make a positive contribution.
Being mindful of the questions we ask has a direct impact on the well-being and performance of our employees.
I collaborate with leaders from a plethora of organisations and whenever I gain the opportunity, ask, how often do you reflect on the positives you experienced in your work over the last week or month with your staff? “Never, we talk about the problems” they mainly reply. And how does that affect the mood of the meeting? They all reply with pretty much the same response, negatively.
Research has consistently found emotions to be contagious, (we all know what it feels like to be in the company of a mood hoover) so the questions we ask, sets the tone. A meeting that solely focuses on problem hoovers positive energy; a meeting that focuses on possibilities grows positive energy.
Maybe you could frame how you come to a meeting with AI. Ask, when we have great meetings, what’s good about them (discover) how can this meeting be better (dreaming) what actions we need to put into our meeting to get us there (design) and then take the first step (deploy).
Use AI in complex conversations. Imagine having a conversation with someone who is underperforming (I bet neither of you would be running toward that conversation!) But what, if instead, you said, can we have a conversation about what we can do to help you work at your best? Ask them, When you were at your best how did it feel? (discover), When you imagine coming to work and being able to work in a way that serves you, your team and our organisation, how would that look and feel? (dream) what can we do to make that happen? (design) which action shall we try first? (deploy).
Use AI in the corridor. Imagine a member of staff catches you in the corridor, and they say, there is another problem with (insert problem here, I’m sure you can think of many). You value the person for raising the issue, then say, what needs to happen so that’s not a problem anymore? (dream) what have we previously done well regarding this issue? (discover) can you think of a solution we could use? (design) what shall we do next? (deploy).
AI is also an incredible framework that supports powerful coaching and mentoring conversations with lasting positive change.
So, can a question change your life?
The research certainly supports that the reframing of questions through an AI framework can change your life. And personally, having used AI over and over in culture reviews, at meetings, in coaching and in so many more places, I know it’s true because I’ve seen its power in action. The questions we ask have the power to change how we engage in experiences and in turn, support personal and professional human flourishing.
Emma is a former police officer who specialised in leadership, development, and diversity training. With a passion for positive change, she shaped community policing through innovative training solutions and established collaborative partnerships. After retiring, Emma studied positive psychology, behavioural science, and neuroscience. Now, as the Director of Learning and Development at Growth Pod, she applies her extensive experience to develop impactful training and coaching programs that promote leadership, inclusion, personal development, and wellbeing.