Energy state transformation is the key to Appreciative Inquiry effectiveness

I have recently come across a great paper about human energy, it is referenced at the end of this piece. It set me thinking about what it was saying in relation to Appreciative Inquiry. These are my thoughts.


What is 'energy' in an organisaitonal setting?

Energy can be a transforming resource. When people become ‘energised’ they are transformed before our eyes. We talk about how people become ‘fired up’ or are ‘on fire’. We see increased animation, people seem more dynamic; quiet wallflowers are suddenly able to hold a room’s attention because they are talking about something that really matters to them. The generation of this energy transforms potential futures as while un-energised people are disinclined to ‘spend’ any energy or to exert any energy to get something done, energised people are a force for movement.

We know from earlier theorists that we can conceptualise energy as non-activated, that is, latent, or, as activated, that is, ‘in motion’. We understand human energy to be made up of different elements e.g. to have affective, cognitive and behavioural dimensions.  Human energy can be characterised as being positive or negative in intent or direction.

Organisational energy, while clearly related to individual energy, can also be thought of separately as a resource of a collective unit. Four different collective or organisational energy states have been identified: productive energy, comfortable energy, resigned inertia, and corrosive energy. These names have great face validity with me: armed with this language I can see I am in the business, frequently, of transforming resigned inertia or corrosive organisational energy into productive organisational energy that is going to work to move things forward.

These four states can be seen as lying across two dimensions: intensity and quality. Intensity as a dimension ranges from high (activated energy) to low (non-activated energy). While quality ranges from positive to negative reflecting how the energy is constructive or destructive of the organizations goals.

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Productive (high positive) organisational energy can be characterized as a collective temporary emergent state. Temporary of course means not permanent, collective means involving everyone. The idea of an ‘emergent’ phenomena comes from the theory of complex adaptive systems and suggests that the phenomena of productive (high positive) organisational energy ‘emerges’ from the behaviour of individual actors in the system. The behaviour of these individual actors that help to create collective high positive organisational energy include individual interactions in settings of mutual dependence; the creation of shared interpretations of shared events; and by the generation of shared emotional or cognitive states.


A language for Appreciuative Inquiry interventions

It was at this point of my reading that I sat up and took notice. This is exactly the area in which Appreciative Inquiry and other dialogic, co-creative change methodologies create their magic. It is precisely by actively working with the interactions in situations of mutual dependency (a whole system), by creating shared interpretations of shared experiences (the process we take people through to create ‘account’ of past, present and future) and by the deliberate generation and expansion of positive emotions (Appreciative Inquiry particularly) that we are able to have an effect on the energy of a group or an organization and so the potential for action and change. I find this articulation of the phenomena of organisational energy and how it relates to the processes of Appreciative Inquiry very exciting.

In this paper energy is described as a resource that allows actors to generate new cognitive frameworks to organise their understanding of a situation. In other words, as we have different experiences together, so we see things differently together, and therefore we can act differently, together. As the paper explains, once a group starts to experience a shared enthusiasm, shared cognitive activation (brain or thought activity) and shared sense of working for joint goals, so the situation begins to feel more one of mutuality and less one of antagonisms. As the sense of mutuality (we’re all in this together) grows, so people are more likely to get involved helping to create meaning, direction setting, deciding, motivating others and in general taking on such leadership tasks in some area or other. The leadership capacity of the system expands. Leadership capacity and leadership enactment becomes less a property of a job title and more a property of the social system.  It is this shift in the leadership capacity and pattern in the group, as well as the emergent productive energy that allows change to happen. Again this describes exactly what, as a practitioner, I see as the Appreciative Inquiry process unfolds.

And so I suggest that as we look to help organizations adapt and grow in changing conditions we need to attend to the phenomena of organisational energy. Thanks to researchers and theorists we have a language in which to describe what we see in organisations and to help us understand what underlies the effectiveness of these ‘positive energy, whole system, dialogic’ change methodologies such as Appreciative Inquiry. By giving us words and a framework they help people articulate something they instinctively know i.e. difference between the energy of resigned inertia and productive energy. They make it possible to explain what Appreciative Inquiry does and how: namely that it transforms the energy of resigned inertia or corrosive energy into productive energy by working with the collective phenomena from which the temporary phenomena of productive energy emerges. By so doing it creates a shift in energy state and an increase in leadership capacity allowing for effective organisational action.


I am highly, if not wholly, indebted in this article to the paper ‘Experiencing Human Energy as a Catalyst for Developing Leadership Capacity’ by Bernard Vogel published in Developing Leaders for Positive Organising: a 21st Century Repertoire for Leading in Extraordinary Times, of the which I have here only scratched the surface.


Sarah Lewis