When Words are More Effective Than Actions
February 2009

Appreciative Inquiry (AI) is a framework for transformational change. It views the world from a positive perspective - i.e., the proverbial glass is half full, instead of half empty. By asking purposeful questions that seek to discover the life-affirming forces of their organization, members engage in a story-telling process through which they envision and create a desired future. This process generates new knowledge - i.e., new ways of viewing and discussing the organization - that is transformative because it focuses on what can be, and it creates the motivation and commitment needed to achieve the shared vision.

Research¹ indicates that one of the characteristics shared by organizations that have experienced transformational change by using AI is a focus on language, rather than on action. Specifically, these organizations concentrate on changing how people think instead of on what they do. Although this approach seems to contradict the familiar "Actions speak louder than words" axiom, it actually makes perfect sense. Here's why.

Behaviors are guided by thoughts, which are driven by language. AI's use of life-affirming language and provocative questions enables members to evoke a much wider range of possibilities for organizational success than they otherwise would. This is true because people focus on a desired future they have envisioned, and they are confident they can achieve it because it is grounded in their previous successes.

This newly generated knowledge enables inspirational stories that define the organization when it is at its best and when its members feel most alive. Because organizations define themselves and socialize their members through these stories, changing them will change the nature of the group's internal dialogue. Sharing accounts of organizational greatness creates a vastly different environment than telling tales that memorialize failure. Even when current circumstances are not good, continued focus on achieving the desired future will energize members. In seeking the opportunities in their present situation, they cannot help but find them.

Here are three things you can do to guide employees' thoughts in positive directions:

  1. Use affirmative language that enables members to see the great things that are possible when the organization is at its best.
  2. If the stories told in your organization are energy-draining rather than energizing, develop other (true) anecdotes.
  3. Focus on how people think rather than on what they do. Remember, actions follow images, and images follow language.

I invite you to drop me an e-mail and let me know your thoughts on this topic!

(¹Bushe, G.R. & Kassam, A.F. (2005). Meta analysis of appreciative inquiry cases: When is appreciative inquiry transformational? Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 41:2, 161-181.)

Pat Lynch, Ph.D., is President of Business Alignment Strategies, Inc., a consulting firm that helps clients optimize business results by aligning people, programs, and processes with organizational goals. Pat can show you how to apply relevant research findings in practical ways to create immediate results in your organization. Contact us today to see how we can help you make a difference!

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