Appreciative Team Building:
Creating a Climate for Great Collaboration
by Jay K. Cherney, Ph.D.
(Published April 2, 2003)
Using Appreciative Inquiry with teams creates a climate that sustains
synergy and collaboration. The principles and steps of appreciative
inquiry are presented and compared with traditional teambuilding
initiatives. Shame and pride are discussed as emotions with pivotal
effects on individual and group development. We then examine how sharing
stories of success builds team cohesion.
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Appreciative Team building
"Appreciative Inquiry is the
cooperative search for the best in people, their organizations, and the
world around them. AI involves the art and practice of asking questions
that strengthen a system's capacity to heighten positive potential. AI
assumes that every living system has untapped, rich, and inspiring
accounts of the positive. Link this "positive core" directly to any change
agenda, and changes never thought possible are suddenly and democratically
Appreciative Inquiry, the study of what works,
is a distinct way of improving human systems. Its been applied across
the spectrum in organizations, from whole system change to teambuilding to
individual coaching. The appreciative approach has extraordinary power to
unleash enthusiasm and momentum for positive change. In my view, this capacity
involves AI's effect on two basic emotions-pride and its evil twin, shame. In
its systematic bias toward the positive, AI sets up conversations that awaken
pride. When relationships are grounded in pride teams become more cohesive and
This article will explore how appreciative, strength-based teambuilding
heightens the capacity for collaboration. I'll begin with an overview of
appreciative inquiry's core principles and how they compare with
traditional teambuilding approaches. We'll walk through the basic steps in
an appreciative team inquiry, and then examine shame and pride more
Two Visions of Teams
Traditional team improvement often begins by assessing what isn't working
so these gaps can be repaired. The metaphor operating in this approach is
"team as machine": if all the parts are in place and working, the
mechanism returns to its previous "unimpaired" functioning.
By contrast, an appreciative approach starts with a series of questions
about what is working, in order to uncover the root causes of team
success. The group then plans its future by expanding and sustaining the
resources in this unique "positive core". The working metaphor here is the
team as an evolving, expanding mystery with untapped possibilities.
Instead of just regaining its previous level, an appreciative process
dares to aim for unprecedented breakthroughs toward the team's highest
Here is a sample protocol that might begin the inquiry:
1) Think of a time when you were on a hugely successful team, a time that
you felt energized, fulfilled and most effective-when you were able to
accomplish even more than you imagined. What made it such a great team?
Tell the story about the situation, the people involved, and how the team
achieved its breakthrough.
2) Without being humble, what was it about you that contributed to the
success of the team? Describe in detail these qualities and what you value
about yourself that enables team success.
3) It is one year from today and your team is functioning more
successfully than any of you imagined. What are we doing, how are we
working together differently, what does this success look like, and how
did we make it happen?
Teammates interview each other in pairs, and then groups of four share and
compare stories. The elements that support these successful times emerge,
often crystallized in an image or symbol that captures the team at its
best-its "positive core". Through further inquiry and dialogue the whole
team then designs ways to amplify the existing assets so day-to-day
functioning approaches the ideal.
Summing up, the stages of an appreciative inquiry are: 1) Discover the
best of what is 2) Envision what might be 3) Dialogue what should be 4)
Innovate what will be.
Gervase Bushe, one of the first appreciative team builders, writes about a
useful image generated during one team inquiry:
"In one business team I worked with one member talked about a group of
young men he played pick-up basketball with and described why they were,
in his opinion, such an outstanding "team". He described their shared
sense of what they were there to do, lack of rigid roles, easy
adaptability to the constraints of any particular situation in the service
of their mission. But what most captured the team's imagination was his
description of how this group was both competitive and collaborative at
the same time. Each person competed with all the rest to play the best
ball, to come up with the neatest move and play. Once having executed it,
and shown his prowess, he quickly "gave it away" to the other players in
the pickup game, showing them how to do it as well. This was a very
meaningful image for this group as a key, unspoken, tension was the amount
of competitiveness members felt with each other at the same time as they
needed to cooperate for the organization's good. "Back alley ball" became
an important synthesizing image for this group that resolved the paradox
of competitiveness and cooperation."
Having images that make team aspirations tangible is a powerful tool. The
image acts like a lighthouse, its steady beam keeping the team on track
toward its desired future as it puts into place new norms, procedures and
The appreciative team process is useful in almost any kind of team
Newly formed teams that want to quickly establish effective roles,
responsibilities and norms
Teams aiming for more effective collaboration
Ongoing project teams facing special challenges
Teams needing renewal or clearer focus
Leadership teams doing strategic planning
Whatever the focus of change, appreciative inquiry frames the agenda
affirmatively. For example, rather than delve into causes of conflict, an
appreciative stance finds the sources of the best cooperation. Instead of
diagnosing the causes of turnover, AI improves retention by discovering
the elements of highly engaging team environments. Looking at causes for
low morale is reframed as a search for the root causes of greatest team
excitement and commitment.
Every time I'm involved in storytelling and conversation about peak
experiences, I witness a special enthusiasm, energy and renewed optimism.
With its deliberate focus on strengths, AI sidesteps the resistance that
can emerge in deficit-driven conversations. How does this happen?
Storytelling, Belonging and Shame
Years ago I heard a speaker define shame with an image that has stuck with
me. He described a group of early humans gathered around an evening fire.
Beyond the warmth and safety of the blaze, this community was bound
together by a uniquely human process: sharing stories. The connection
created by telling stories was as important for survival as food and
shelter. Storytelling is the force that forms human communities. The
stories we value together transform individuals into cohesive webs of
shared meaning, belonging and striving.
Now pull away from the circle and notice one man standing apart, in the
dark. He was shunned, pushed out in shame for behavior that somehow
threatened the integrity of the community. With his stories devalued, his
link to the group was severed. He existed in a perilous limbo, an identity
So shame involves our sense of defectiveness, our unworthiness to belong.
Shame lurks in the gaps between our perceived "real" and "ideal"
selves-how we are compared with how we "should" be.
In Sylvan Tomkins' affect theory, shame occurs when any positive emotion
is interrupted or impeded. Tomkins labels the two positive emotions, each
on a continuum of intensity: interest-excitement and enjoyment-joy. When
our engagement in rewarding activities and relationships is interrupted,
excitement and joy fade. We begin to shut down, withdraw. This is when we
construct stories and images of ourselves as deficient, unworthy,
In our present-day teams being told our contribution isn't valued doesn't
immediately threaten our survival, but it can be a powerful experience
that resonates back to the shunned tribesman. Being criticized, especially
in public, triggers doubts. When we are told, "You're wrong", we may hear
"You're incompetent". Criticism can reawaken our old stories of
defectiveness. Our confidence about the future slips. We may manage this
sense of threat by withdrawing or fighting back against the criticism.
Such defensiveness infects the team atmosphere, reverberating in waves of
resistance and criticism.
Pride and Collaboration
So what is pride? It's pleasure in our own competence; delight in seeing
how our efforts made a positive difference. (Yet healthy pride means
accepting limitations, knowing we never do it all by ourselves.)
Take a moment and reflect back to a moment of great personal success.
What's the first thing you wanted to do with all that excitement and joy?
Didn't you want to share your story-to savor and extend the satisfaction
by having someone else validate your competencies? This kind of
conversation accelerates growth for individuals and relationships in some
Having our success acknowledged by another reminds us we are valued and
needed. This sharing expands our inner stories of pride and minimizes
images of shame. Fortified with a clearer and fuller vision of our
capabilities, we move toward the future more confidently.
Being recognized by others also strengthens connections. It renews our
welcome into the security of the community and opens channels for
effective dialogue, so essential for "co-laboring". More specifically, the
mutual sharing of pride leads to fuller knowledge of each other's
capabilities. Teammates then know where to turn when a task requires
particular talents. This information makes the combining of complementary
strengths more likely. Mutual mining of assets means each person feel
acknowledged and valued specifically for what they offer and who they are.
Teammates see clearly how their strengths contribute to progress and so
more fully enjoy team success.
The more often we have these success conversations, the more eager we are
to cooperate, trust and learn. We feel safer, more willing to risk putting
our ideas into play. In this environment, difficult choices come easier so
projects move ahead more smoothly. Decisions that contain multiple voices
more powerfully address complex, nuanced challenges.
Addressing A Pitfall
Partiality for the positive loses power, though, if it becomes Pollyanna
happy-talk. The deliberate focus on what works doesn't mean the
appreciative process denies or refuses to hear "negative" emotions. These
need to be acknowledged and validated. Yet delving into the causes of
distress in order to "cure" it can be a trap. One AI maxim says, "What we
focus on expands". Too much attention to the causes of conflict can
entangle us and actually deepen dissension. We bog down in the quicksand
of complex problems that may not even have clear-cut solutions.
A team with appreciative values sustains its climate one conversation at a
time. Instead of asking for less of something, appreciative teammates make
a habit of focusing on and asking for more of what works. Embedded within
every complaint is a vision of a desired future. AI addresses negativity
by overshadowing it with positive images and relationships. This
atmosphere supports openness, learning, risk-taking and the complementary
blending of individual talents. The whole becomes exponentially more than
just the sum of its parts. Being part of such a team is exhilarating,
satisfying and just plain fun.
People are irresistibly attracted to workplaces filled with the
life-giving climate of pride and appreciation.
Jay K. Cherney, Ph.D. is a psychologist, consultant and mediator.
His core mission is to promote collaborative relationships and boost
resilience during adversity for leaders, teams and whole organizations.
He is also a mediator for the U.S. Postal Service and an organization
development consultant for the Management Institute of Rowan University.
Jay earned an M.S. in clinical psychology from Hahnemann University and
a Ph.D. in counseling psychology from Temple University.
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