Many change programs operate on the principle that people are complacent and need to be shaken up with vivid descriptions of their organization’s shortcomings. In The Power of Appreciative Inquiry: A Practical Guide to Positive Change, consultants Diana Whitney and Amanda Trosten-Bloom argue the opposite position. They suggest that people tend to see the problems but resist change because they feel vulnerable to blame or dismissal. To overcome this insecurity and fatalism, the authors advise leaders to start the change process by focusing on what the company does well. By validating employees for the jobs they currently do, leaders will give people the self-confidence to tackle problems and find creative solutions.
Although this approach arose out of work with nonprofits, some for-profit organizations have used it successfully as well. But this perhaps predictably upbeat book would have been more persuasive if it had also discussed the downsides to the approach. How, for example, should managers encourage units whose seeming success came at the expense of another unit? Sometimes the act of validating employees may do more harm than good.
John T. Landry is an editor of Harvard Business Review, from which this review is reprinted with permission.