The Appreciative Culture

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high,

Where knowledge is free. Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls.

Where words come out from the depth of truth,Where tireless striving stretches its arms toward perfection.

Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit.

Where the mind is led forward into ever widening thought and action. In to that heaven of freedom, my father, LET MY COUNTRY AWAKE!”  1

– Rabindranath Tagore

The twenty-first century is witnessing the re-emergence of a timeless perspective that is fundamentally reorienting the institutional approach towards building a healthy organizational culture. The focus of institutional effort is progressively shifting away from the correction of deficits and weaknesses towards the affirmation of strengths and capabilities that reside within individuals, teams, and organizations. 2

This is referred to as the appreciative paradigm, or the strengths-centric approach.

The notion of appreciation possesses many of the cognitive and emotional elements that are important for the experience of satisfaction and happiness in life. While the construct was initially equated with being positive, it now includes all kinds of linguistic constructions that are considered as life enhancing. 3

The appreciative approach embodies respect for the uniqueness and inherent worth of each individual in society. Drawing upon humanistic psychology as well as contemporary scientific research, it emphasizes the discovery of the positive features in every human system. The latent potential that resides within the people may then be harnessed towards individual benefit as well as collective gain.

The basic necessities of harmonious social existence are the preservation of human dignity (unconditional respect for every human being) and empowerment (the freedom to make informed choices at work). The salient attributes of the appreciative paradigm are precisely these. They contribute mightily towards the development of a constructive and humane organizational culture.

The Phenomenon of Appreciation

The term “appreciation” originates from the Latin adpretium. Taken together, these translate as “to place a value on.” 

The Oxford English Online Dictionary defines appreciation as: 4

  1. Expression of gratitude,
  2. Recognition and enjoyment of the good qualities or the true worth of someone or something
  3. A full understanding of a situation
  4. An increase in value

Appreciation is the process of placing a value upon something, and bestowing love and attention upon it. Mitchel Adler defines appreciation as  “acknowledging the value and meaning of something (an event, person, behavior or object), and feeling a positive emotional connection to it.” 4

The phenomenon of appreciation is characterized by a focus on what the person has (as opposed to what one lacks), as well as a keen experiential awareness from moment to moment. It involves being one with the perceived object, and feeling deeply connected with it.

The construct of appreciation has its roots in the philosophical tradition of hermeneutics, which emphasizes that human perception is primarily an act of judgment. 5The appreciative gaze apprehends “what is”, rather than “what is not”. It pools together all that which has essential and fundamental value, away from the inexorable faults and deficiencies. Like the venerated swan of Indian mythology, the appreciative eye distills out the pure milk from the “contaminant” water.

Empirical experience indicates that people can locate positive worth in any given situation, when they firmly make up their mind to do so. For instance, the Viennese psychotherapist Viktor Frankl managed to find a tremendous sense of personal strength and meaning even during his incarceration as a prisoner at a concentration camp of the Third Reich. He was therefore successful at helping many of his distraught mates in doing so too. Frankl was thereby instrumental in saving many lives during that most deplorable of episodes in human history. 6

Ordinary human experience also confirms that human action is shaped by an individual’s perceptionof the world, regardless of the actual reality. Every person creates her own, unique picture of reality through symbolic and mental processes. As Dewitt Jones states in his film Celebrate What’s Right with the World, “Believe it, and you will see it!” 7

When people look out, what they perceive is largely a function of their vantage point or the interpretive scheme that they employ. These numerous perspectives are all perfectly legitimate in their own right. Beauty, as the saying goes, lies in the eye of the beholder.

The Characteristics of Appreciation

The capacity for genuine appreciation is tremendously valuable in facilitating individual as well as institutional effectiveness. Every individual is inherently capable of locating the positive facets of a situation, and of making constructive judgments thereupon. However, it is to be borne in mind that she may legitimately approach the circumstance in an evaluative vein and look out for defects – without necessarily being non-appreciative.

For instance, an appreciative stance is easily seen as fundamental to the practices of teaching and mentoring that involve the articulation and development of the interests and talents of the learner. On the other hand, a medical consultant is expected to critically evaluate the patient’s situation and symptoms prior to making a diagnosis and prescribing treatment. 

If the medico is able to expertly carry out this work with genuine empathy and compassion, and refrain from exploiting the situation for narrow or unworthy ends, this approach too shall count as being appreciative. This is because an appreciative stance values all the numerous different ways of knowing and being. Each one of these is potentially assumed to have some contextual validity. 

This leads to acapacity for openness, which is very useful in the modern workplace that is characterized by an array of distinctive values, beliefs, and aspirations as well as racial, religious, gender and diversity. 

The integrative nature of the appreciative approach helps people to creatively transcend discord. It nips any potential tendency towards majority dominance or social conformity in the bud. 

For instance, Nelson Mandela rallied South Africans together after being elected as the first black president of his country. His inaugural presidential address was liberally peppered with the plural pronouns “we,” “us,” and “our.” Mandela recognized that black supremacy was as depraved as white supremacy. He thereby practiced racial harmony by sharing power and forgiving, albeit without forgetting. 

An appreciative outlook also facilitates inter-personal harmony as well as co-operation. 

Nelson Mandela bridged diverse interests by appreciatively creating room for others. For example, he supported South Africa’s overwhelmingly white skinned team of athletes when the ban was lifted on the country’s participation in the 1992 Olympics. In this manner, Mandela fulfilled the task of bringing about a profound change in South Africa.8

How did this happen? As a stance of holistic understanding, appreciation brings about a shift in focus towards the deeper attributes that all human beings are blessed with in common. This gradually leads the people to realize that the shared attributes of humanity are significantly more profound and deserve more attention as compared to the selfish interests or narrow concerns of any particular individual, group, organization, community, industry, or culture.

However, appreciation ceases to remain significant as a positive sentiment when it is employed as a manipulative tool to exploit or secure profit. Pseudo-appreciation is a counterproductive strategy that is not able to deceive anyone for too long, and eventually spells a cultural disaster.

Positivity – The Effect of Appreciation

Positivity represents the visible expression of appreciation in human life. Barbara Frederickson has described “positivity” as an umbrella term that encompasses many distinct emotions. Joy, gratitude, serenity, hope, pride, amusement, inspiration, awe and love are said to make up the positivity palette. 9

Positive emotions are found to broaden the perception, thoughts, and actions of the people. People who are disposed to hold positive expectations for the future respond to difficulty or adversity in more adaptive ways as compared to those who hold negative expectations. 

A longitudinal study of college students coping with ordinary life problems found that positive emotions correlated with the use of creative and broad-minded coping strategies. 10In another longitudinal assessment of college students before and after the 9/11 attacks at New York’s World Trade Centre, positive emotions were found to be associated with psychological resilience. 11

Positive emotions help to break down the sense of “us versus them”. 12They have also been found to help bring about satisfaction at work, physical health, effective problem solving and other outcomes. 13

Appreciation in Action: The Strengths-centric Approach

The phenomenon of appreciation forms the bedrock of the contemporary strengths-based approach to human and organization development. This paradigm places a deep value upon the capacity, skills, knowledge, and abilities that lie dormant within individuals as well as institutions.

Buckingham and Clifton define “strength” as the ability to provide consistent, near-perfect performance in a given activity. 14Their research indicates that the recurrently used synaptic connections in a person’s brain are continually strengthened up to the age of 15 years, while the sparingly employed ones tend to weaken over this time period. Thereafter, the synaptic connections are found to remain stable across the lifespan.  Human beings can imbibe additional knowledge and skills and even redefine their core values and beliefs in the later years of life. But the greatest benefit is found to emerge from a focus upon the synaptic connections that were strong in youth.

Strengths are produced when a person’s inherent talents are judiciously developed and refined. A talent represents any naturally recurring patterns of thought, feeling or behavior that can be productively applied. 

Accordingly, the strengths-centric approach revolves around the integration of personal talents into one’s action repertoire. Its focus is upon the careful discovery and utilization of human abilities that drive exceptional performance, without ignoring situational challenges or naively portraying struggles and gaps as strengths. As Steve Jobs advised the graduating students at Stanford University in 2004, “The only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking!” 15

When one’s inherent talents are deployed, it feels effective, easy and natural. Before the activity, one has a feeling of anticipation. The conduct of the activity is characterized by focus and inquisitiveness. After the activity, authenticity and fulfillment are experienced.

Nevertheless, strengths may not be directly correlated with the performance that may result from their deployment. There are many activities that people may do well, but nevertheless find these as a drain upon their energy. Such activities are more properly called as weaknesses. 

For instance, the initial career choices of the youth are usually dictated more by job prospects and peer pressure than by intrinsic interests of the individual. Youngsters even manage to excel at their adopted profession for a while, by the force of sheer willpower or external support. Eventually, such people get burnt out in due course of time because the work leaves them drained. This is a weakness in action.

Irrespective of personal competence, “strength” is an attribute that strengthensthe person when it is deployed while a “weakness” is anything that appears to weakenthe individual when engaged with it. 14

Just as different individuals possess diverse strengths, they are unique in their weak attributes too. The strategies for managing the weakness range from a minimum acceptable performance in the weak area to maximizing a strength area so that it can compensate for or even overshadow the deficit. 

For instance, the deaf and blind girl Helen Keller became one of the most remarkable women in history despite her physical disabilities. This became possible on the strength of her determination and courage.

Every individual must therefore closely examine her personal needs, desires and capabilities. These are the key to value creation by the individual for society. Work tasks should be chosen according to personal strengths as well as abilities. Each person must professionally engage only with those activities that she wantsto do and also possesses the capabilityof doing them well.

The Appreciative Individual

A verse from the ancient Indian text Subhashita Ratna Bhandagaram(Chapter 3, Verse 162) states, “There is no alphabet without power; no root without medicinal property; no person without ability; but rare is the {appreciative} person who can connect, organize and utilize the myriad words, things and people of the world.”16

This suggests that genuinely appreciative people are precious, but relatively uncommon, commodities. While that holds broadly true in contemporary organizational life, it is equally correct that an appreciative individual is hard to miss on account of the vivacity & zest that characterizes such a being.

The appreciative individual possesses a seemingly enigmatic capacity to infuse collective action with a deeper sense of meaning and purpose. Shebecomes a sculptor of elevating conversations, and inspires her colleagues to act upon exalted values that transcend the material plane and conditions of the world. 

Appreciative individuals operate from the belief that human life is not so much a problem-to-be-solved,as it is a mystery-to-be-embraced. They possess an uncanny ability to see deeply into persons and circumstances, perhaps because their perception is infused with insight and imagination. These people engage in a rational as well as an emotional assessment of the situation, before formulating a response. 17

Appreciative individualscreate organizational contexts that are supportiveof constructive creativity. They encourage people to engage in serious play with ideas and concepts, to juggle impossible juxtapositions, to consider wild hypothesis, to express the ridiculous, and to take spontaneous hunches as serious prospects.Such individuals also provide direction and exercise control when necessary, but do so in ways that liberate (rather than constrain) the capacity forinnovation.

Appreciative personalities create a climate of psychological safety that is characterized by a spirit of openness to experience and tolerance for ambiguity. Instead of punishing the negatives or encouraging complaints about shortcomings, they build a culture of praise, encouragement, and empowerment. In the firm belief that every individual has inherent worth and boundless potential,these people guide, facilitate and enable their colleagues to deliver their personal best – time after time.

Appreciative individuals also encourage people to broaden their perspective, so that they may learn to spot the proverbial “woods” together with the “trees.”This facilitates the ingenious integration of opposing values or conflicting priorities. Such an inclusive approach forms the very basis of a synergistic way of organizing, and yields individual effectiveness alongside institutional benefit.

As an example, Sir Richard Branson is the well-known founder of the United Kingdom’s Virgin Group. He features in the list of the world’s top 500 billionaires.18 Being dyslexic, Sir Richard had a difficult childhood. He left studies without finishing high school, on account of poor academic performance. 

The secret of Sir Richard’s phenomenal business success lies in his ability to remain calm and relaxed in the face of contradiction and ambiguity. This has enabled him to develop innovative new businesses within the context of uncertainty. 19 The organizational culture at Virgin tolerates and even celebrates failure, because it is virtually impossible to innovate and grow without trying something new. 

Virgin is also characterized by an employee-first mindset. Branson says, “If you take care of your employees, your employees will take care of your customers, and your customers will take care of your shareholders.” 20 He emphasizes that it is very important is to look out forthe best in people all the time, so that you can eventually draw out the best inthem. 20

Sir Richard Branson perennially remains on the lookout for people who can complement his own abilities. He has thereby mastered the art of delegation that many so-called “intelligent” people struggle with. An appreciative outlook thus enabled Sir Richard to rapidly establish several businesses, such that the Virgin Group is now a highly successful conglomerate – comprising of over 400 different companies.

The Appreciative Culture

The culture of any organization refers to a system of shared assumptions, values, and beliefs that govern how people behave in organizations. 21Itrepresents a set of shared norms that guide what happens in a collective setting, by defining appropriate behavior for various situations. Accordingly, culture may also be regarded as the self-sustaining pattern of behavior that determines how things are done. 

Incidentally, Elliot Jaques was the first management researcher to employ the term “culture” in the organizational context. In his book The Changing Culture of a Factory (1951), he described “organizational culture” as the customary and traditional way of thinking and doing things that is shared to a greater or lesser degree by all its members. 22

Every organization develops and maintains a unique culture, which provides guidelines and boundaries for the behavior of its members. An appreciative approach to organizational functioning helps to create an engaging institutional culture that evokes inspired action. 

Since the appreciative mindset is a holistic one, it minimizes boundaries across the larger ecosystem of the organization. People are aware of the entire picture, how everything fits together, and how the various parts of the organization interact with each other and with the external environment. Ideas bubble up from across the system in order to help the organization seize opportunities and manage crises.The organization thereby manages to create a sense of delight for all its stakeholders.

An appreciative culture is based upon equality. Every person is encouraged to be oneself. People use their natural style, which permits the full and free expression of their innate self. Individuals earnestly try to do their best. Trust and collaboration prevail. Chronic conflicts and tensions are conspicuous by their absence. The attrition is low.

The appreciative culture represents an attempt to return to the agile conditions of a classic entrepreneurial firm. There is widespread sharing of information across the institution so that people can act quickly. Formal systems are implemented in order to manage large amounts of complex information and to detect deviations from established standards. The accumulated actions of an informed and empowered workforce contribute to strategy development. Newer channels of communication are opened with customers, suppliers and even competitors. Ideas flow in all directions. 

Patagonia Inc. provides a good example of an appreciative organizational culture. Whole Foods Market presents another fine instance of a constructive cultural paradigm. Both of these organizations are highly inclusive, by design. They look upon their employees and associatesas “sources” rather than resources, and place them at the heart of their activities.

These two institutions actively involve their people in all aspects of organizational functioning, and look after their well being too.Promoting the vitality of the community or the planet is also central to their charter, and forms an integral part of the higher purpose for which they exist.

The leaders of Patagonia and Whole Foods Market are remarkable visionaries. They look beyond the limited human self and organize their activities around the Higher Self. In the mould of JRD Tata, they concentrate on “the ounce of gold” in their colleagues and overlook the mounds of earth that must be mined in order to reach it. These pragmatic idealists infuse their people with a missionary zeal to serve the community/society in a manner that leads to organizational prosperity at the same time. 

In their own unique way, both the enterprises strive for synergy between: a) the employees/people, b) profit, and c) the humanity/planet. That is the reason whythey are characterized by a constructive organizational culture. The structure of the organizations is also organic in nature. This allows for an easy flow of communication across organizational levels and facilitates collaboration across boundaries.

 The culture and the structure come together to create a highly engaging workplace in both these instances. As a result, Patagonia and Whole Foods Market manage to evoke intense loyalty from their people – who work for the enterprise with all their heart and soul.

Appreciative Capacity

The following four competencies are critical for nurturing the human capacity for appreciation: 23

  1. Affirmative competence– the ability to identify positive possibilities by focusing upon successes and strengths, without being dismissive of existing imperfections
  2. Expansive competence– the ability to challenge the existing organizational thinking and practices, in order to stretch the capability of its people
  3. Generative competence  – the ability to create integrative systems that allow people to see the consequences of their actions, and to recognize them when they make meaningful contributions
  • Collaborative competence– the ability to create spaces and forums, wherein people can freely engage in dialogue and exchange diverse perspectives 

Developing Appreciative Capacity

The scientific worldview that dominated the minds and intellects of the twentieth century effectively discouraged people from taking cognizance of all those deep inner experiences from which human societies had historically obtained their ultimate sense of purpose and guiding values. 

The traditional scientific paradigm neglected the exploration of the higher human aspirations and ideologies that could help people to navigate the course of their lives. As a result, the cosmos described by materialistic science became bereft of a larger sense of meaning and nobility of purpose.

On the other hand, any endeavour to develop one’s appreciative capacity inevitably awakens the desire to inquire beyond superficial appearances into the deeper, life-enhancing essentials.24The phenomenon of appreciation is then found to be a function of how people identify their own self in the first place, and thereafter how they look upon the external object in relation to themselves. 

Connectedness – The Soul of Appreciation

The human capacity for true appreciation is a direct function of the expansiveness of our own sense of identity. This is in the spirit of the ancient Indian dictum “vasadeva katumbakam,” that translates, “The entire world is a single family.” 25The English poet John Donne (1624 / 1994) also expressed it perfectly when he wrote, “No man is an island; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind”26

The term “connectedness” represents a sense of being a part of (and belonging to) something larger than oneself. It also refers to the absence of any rigid boundaries within the universe. 26The term originates from the German construct of Gestalt, which means an “organic” form.28

Quantum physics strongly endorses connectedness. This branch of science had evolved during the early twentieth century, in an effort to explain the fundamental properties of matter at the microcosmic level. Subatomic particles were appearing to behave like a wave as well as a particle at the same time. Supposedly “empty” space was teeming with ephemerally existing virtual particles. Far from being neutral and detached, the observer was found to be an integral part of the observed reality.

In 1964, Bell’s Theorem mathematically established the proposition that subatomic particles are connected in a way that transcends time as well as space. 29In 1982, Alain Aspect discovered that subatomic particles are able to communicate with each other instantaneously under certain circumstances, regardless of the magnitude of the distance that separates them. 30

The physicist and philosopher David Bohm interpreted these findings to imply that the very separateness of subatomic particles is actually an illusion. These particles appear to be separate from one another, simply because we are seeing only a small portion of their existential reality. In actual fact, they are the different facets of an underlying unity that is indivisible and holographic. 31

The contemporary scientific perspective supports a holographic view of the universe, wherein each of its constituent parts is an exact representation of the whole. Far from being localized and compartmentalized, the universe is now regarded as an integral whole that is devoid of any boundaries. It is a dynamic web of wave-like patterns of interconnectedness. Material objects, which appear solid to the human eye, actually dissolve into wave-like patterns of interconnections at the subatomic level. 

All biological and living systems also remain open to the environment all the time. They continually feed on the matter-energy that emanates from their surroundings. For instance, living organisms inhale oxygen derived from the earth’s atmosphere in order to stay alive – from moment to moment. Further, all flora and fauna on the earth draw energy from the Sun for its sustenance. If and when our solar center would disappear, life on earth would immediately cease to exist. In this way, even a distance of 150 million kilometers does not prevent the Sun from being an integral part of life on Planet Earth. 

The social and economic interdependence that exists amongst the people in a community, the states in a country, and (increasingly) among nations across the global village is a plain fact of modern life. Climate change is the salient example of a phenomenon that may be caused by some but affects all regardless of their race, creed, class, culture or citizenship.

Connectedness in Practice

Human beings are observed to readily “connect” with that which they consider as a part of their core self – or its extension in any form and manner. For instance, a mother effortlessly locates beauty, strength, character and other positive or desirable attributes in her own child. She may not find it as easy to spot these qualities in a neighbour’s child who has been acting as a bully, or in the case of another who has emerged ahead of her own offspring in the classroom or in a sports competition. 

On the other hand, the poet or sage who has meditatively experienced all manner of division and differentiation to be illusory in nature is able to locate beauty, wonder, and awe in all of Creation.

The Bhagavad Gita(Chapter 2, Verse 47) enjoins that every person has the right to perform one’s prescribed duties, but the fruits of those actions are not under the control or the purview of the individual. Thus, nobody should consider oneself to be the cause of the results of one’s activities. 32Yet, none should slide into inaction. This is a succinct statement of Karma Yoga or the Yoga of Action. It offers a deep insight into the way human work may be performed in a world or universe whose constituent elements (so to speak) are inextricably “connected” together.

Individuals who accept wholeness as the essential characteristic of human existence rest secure in the knowledge that there are innumerable cross-linkages and forces larger than one’s individual desire, will or effort that eventually determine the occurrence (or otherwise) of external events. However, does that mean that such people are unwilling to achieve results, or are incapable of doing so?

The truth is perhaps the opposite. When the anxiety for achievement drops away, the person’s vitality does not get leaked or dissipated in stress and worry. It is now devoted to the actual pursuit of the outcomes. The chances of accomplishment thus improve significantly. Such people are also better positioned to locate the true, the good, the beautiful and the valuable elements in the world outside, without feeling intrinsically threatened by these in any manner.

Conversely, a reluctance to accept the “connected” nature of life stunts the person’s capacity for genuine appreciation. To ascribe a sense of limitation to that which is limitless has traditionally been looked upon as a form of nescience. The sage Patanjali(The Yoga Sutras, Sadhana Pada, Sutra 5) regards it as a primary human affliction that is the substantive source and root cause of human misery. 33

The acknowledgement of “connectedness” helps to expand one’s self-identity to include all of life, and even beyond. This leads to the development of a sense of positivity, and an intrinsic faith in the larger process of life. People then engage in action from the positive belief and understanding that all of what happens in one’s life is eventually for one’s own good.

Concluding Reflections

An appreciative approach to culture building revolves around the human ability to look beyond obstacles, problems, and limitations. This is accompanied by a keen desire to realize latent potential, and to channelize dormant strengths and values in actual practice

Appreciative individuals possess an expansive consciousness. They look beyond narrow “personal” concerns and see all as one as well as oneself in all. 

Jamsetji Tata, the founder of the venerable Tata Group, was one such personality. The enterprise started by him was nurtured and expanded by his successors over a period of 150 years. It remains as India’s largest Business House to this day. The next chapter tells the incomparable story of this remarkable conglomerate that “also” does business!


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