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Appreciative intelligence: See the oak from the acorn


Our brains operate with a negativity bias. This means is we notice negative things more than positive things, and dwell on negative events for longer. It's a survival instinct - the more aware we are of threats, the more we can avoid them and stay alive.

It's not a coincidence that the news and media we digest is often negative, because that's what gets the clicks/attention - and clicks/attention is what makes the money. No wonder there are so many negative-nancy-moaning-myrtles around. Our brains are geared for it!

And in 2023 there's a lot to be negative about. Climate change is threatening our future. Politics is an ugly and divisive space. People are stressed and burnt out at work. Inflation is making it harder to buy basic necessities. And on, and on, and on.

Weirdly, finding negative stimuli is the brain's happy place. It's good at finding the bad. Sometimes we can be bogged down by the negativity. Therefore we need to consciously and deliberately reframe our mindset. We need to bring appreciation, positivity and hope to the forefront. And this is when we can use our appreciative intelligence.

What is appreciative intelligence?

Tojo Joseph Thatchenkery defines appreciative intelligence as “the ability to perceive the positive inherent, generative potential within the present.”

Big concept. It’s almost the glass-half-full approach. It's a focus on finding the silver lining. It’s being able to see a breakthrough, or a new future in the present. This can apply to organisations, relationships, people, conversations, products—anything, in fact. And having seen the new future, the art is to then create it and make it happen.

This is seeing an acorn and recognising the mighty oak that will come from it.

If this sounds fluffy to you - it's anything but that. Thatchenkery describes it like this:

“It is not simple optimism. People with appreciative intelligence are realistic and action oriented—they have the ability not just to identify positive potential, but to devise a course of action to take advantage of it.” - TOJO JOSEPH THATCHENKERY

First we identify the positive future, then we need to make it happen.

People with high appreciative intelligence can:

  1. Reframe their mindset or emotions. Deliberately change the way you see something and manage your emotions, particularly your emotional hijacks far more effectively. Dinah gave me a great example of this the other day. I was complaining about a zit/breakout I had and she said "Just think about how the fact that your skin is healthy enough to still produce blemish-causing oils." Honestly, it worked. I felt much better about the situation.

  2. Appreciate the positive. Focus on the positive aspects of the situation but not blindly. Hope survives when people believe the outcome can be achieved. For Thanksgiving in 2020 and 2021 I wrote about this. There are some good ideas there (then again, I would say they're good, wouldn't I?)

  3. See and create the future from the present. Hilary discussed ways to do this in her 2022 webinar: Thinking about your career.

What it looks like in action

You'll see the powers of appreciative intelligence when:

  • People display grounded hope (The Stockdale Paradox).They’re realistic about the situation, but also keep the faith they’ll reach the goal.

  • People are engaged in what they’re doing. They feel connected to the outcomes they’re working towards.

  • Success and effort is celebrated.

  • People know the value they add and that they are valued.

Strengthen your Appreciative Intelligence

Remember, intelligences are like muscles: They can grow with deliberate effort and exercises. Here are some exercises to strengthen your appreciative intelligence.

Practise reframing and creative thinking.

Here are some techniques:

  • When facing an upsetting situation state the reality and then say “but luckily...” and finish the sentence.

  • Think about some recent wins or successes and what you can attribute success to. Then, think about how you can apply that to a challenging situation/person you are faced with.

Apply appreciation to your brainstorming.

Often we think about the problem and then identify solutions to tackle that problem. Turn the equation around.

Try this appreciation approach:

  1. What successes have you had in the past [timeframe]. What's gone well?

  2. What did you or others do that made [xyz] a success?

  3. Now, think about a current challenge or area that needs to be improved.

  4. How can you apply what you/others did in #2 to these areas in #3?

Reflect on your present level of Appreciative Intelligence.

  • Explore your current levels of optimism.

  • Consider your success stories and how they came about.

  • Self-assess and ask for feedback about your persistence, tolerance for uncertainty and resilience.

Celebrate successes and achievements.

Nothing is too small to acknowledge. If someone’s effort, attitude, knowledge or work made things better, then recognise it. How people want to be recognised for their work varies. Do you speak everyone’s appreciation language?

Create different lines of sight so people can track their impact and value.

Appreciative intelligence can connect the work people do with the outcomes that are being achieved. Take a look at the line of sight actions in this blog about building hope at work.

Surround yourself with positive, optimistic people. They say misery loves company - but so does positivity! Attitudes are contagious after all!


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