Transforming Workplace Conflict with Appreciative Inquiry

What we see,” said English statesman Sir John Lubbock, “depends mainly on what we look for.”

In workplace conflict, the traditional problem-solving approach is to focus on what isn’t working and figure out how to fix it. Yet such negative “spotlighting” can actually have a limiting effect on the potential for creative conflict resolution. And when you focus on what’s wrong, you see only part of the picture…sometimes a small part that gets needlessly magnified.

There is another way: Focus energy on what is working. In the 1980s, David Cooperrider and colleagues at Case Western Reserve University developed an approach they named Appreciative Inquiry (AI), based on the premise that groups “change in the direction in which they inquire.”

AI assumes that what you focus on influences your reality. The approach amplifies what is good in a group while also honoring the past and focusing attention on how to do more of what works. Instead of a deficit-focused task, AI’s approach is abundance-focused undertaking and orients the system (the department, organization or team) toward success-building.

A while back I worked with an organization that had experienced a painful time with a rather heavy-handed leader who had since departed. The new team leader called me because the staff seemed fearful, cautious and so focused on past problems that it seemed difficult to get them excited about the future. Much time had been spent in staff meetings attempting to address the past problems and figure out how to avoid them in the future. After concluding that the near-constant focus on these painful problems made coming to work a fairly depressing experience, I invited them to change their focus to questions like:

  • What about this organization makes you glad you work here?
  • What values do you want to make sure this organization carries into the future?
  • What relationships do you value here and how might you help build more of those?


While the past problems could not magically be erased, it was possible to put them in the context of an organization that still had great value and to re-orient the team’s energy to a promising future. And with my guidance over a relatively short period, and their smarts, that’s exactly what they did.Imagine a problem-solving process that celebrates what you do well, instead of one that concentrates primarily on your weaknesses. When a group focuses its best attention on what it does well and tries to create more of those successes, the presenting problems recede, sometimes dramatically. This doesn’t mean they get erased; the power of the negative diminishes when you choose a different set of lenses.
If you’d like to learn more about AI can serve your workplace or organization, call or email me for information. And for a story about how I used AI with one of my classes, take a look-see at Solutions Depend on How We Frame the Problem.