Note: This is coverage of the 2007 Appreciative Inquiry Conference (Sept 16-19, Orlando, FL). Today was Monday, September 17, 2007, and the main events were three keynote speeches by David Cooperrider, Marcus Buckingham, and Martin Seligman.
Cooperrider went broad, Buckingham went specific, and Seligman went cohesive: Cooperrider introduced the concept of strengths elevating an organization to beyond its four walls, Buckingham hit home the message that using strengths at work starts with you, the individual, and Seligman outlined some major findings of positive psychology that support Cooperrider and Buckingham’s work in strengths.
David Cooperrider and Appreciative Inquiry
David Cooperrider, Professor of Organizational Behavior of the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University, opened the 2007 Appreciative Inquiry Conference by showing images of inspiring leaders making strides in social entrepreneurship, including economist Jeffrey Sachs and UN head Kofi Annan. Cooperrider showed videos and described the practices of many organizations that use strengths to as Cooperrider says “extend” their work beyond the organization.
There’s the case of Walmart which wanted to buy 100 million pounds of organic cotton in one year when there wasn’t enough supply. So Walmart set out to revolutionize organic cotton farming as part of its operations. There’s Fairmount Diamonds that used the AI method and created a new sand filter. There’s the military that used this method to high praise. There’s the World Inquiry which has collected over one thousand stories about business as an agent of change – in helping the economy, poverty, etc. Cooperrider focused on social entrepreneurship.
Other Cooperrider thoughts heard throughout the talk:
“… organizations are not problems to be solved; they’re centers of human relatedness” ~ David Cooperrider
“Awe is what moves us forward.” ~ Joseph Campbell
“… hot and alive within us, and where everything has to re-crystallize about it.” ~ William James
“The task of leadership is to create an alignment of strengths in ways that make a system’s weaknesses irrelevant.” ~ Peter Drucker
Marcus Buckingham and Strengths-Focus
Marcus Buckingham, author of several strengths-focused books including Go Put Your Strengths to Work, spoke primarily about the progress (and non-progress) of strengths in the business place over the past decade. Buckingham started with the story of how he is different from his brother and sister in personality, and he became aware of that as a boy. He continued saying that these differences magnify over time. There are certain traits and behaviors that are your strengths.
Buckingham then talked about enjoying studying the positive outliers such as the store that outperforms, to learn what it is doing. There was a collective sigh of recognition from the audience when Buckingham unveiled the one question found by Gallup to most predict job satisfaction: “At work, do you have the opportunity to do what you do best everyday?”
Despite this question being the number one predictor, people in surveys around the world, when asked “What do you think will help you be most successful?” still say that fixing weaknesses (57%) is more important than building strengths (41% worldwide in 2000).
Buckingham drew to a close by clarifying that the phrase should not be, “People are our greatest asset,” but that it’s people’s strengths – where they shine – that matters, and that the phrase really needs to be, “People’s strengths are our greatest assets.”
And he gave two major recommendations to people for using their strengths more. One, as a boss, to challenge subordinates to use their strengths even more and in new ways, as we learned when Buckingham interacted with an audience member and pretended to be her boss by asking her to use her strengths even more. Two, to each week be pushing ourselves and to be deliberate about using our strengths even more.
Martin Seligman and Positive Psychology
Martin Seligman, Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, was the afternoon speaker, and he highlighted the science underlying Cooperrider’s and Buckingham’s areas of research. Specifically, Seligman gave an overview of the three ways to look at happiness – the pleasant life, the engaged life, and the meaningful life.
Among other topics, Seligman spoke about positive emotion, broaden and build, gratitude, and the three benefits of living the pleasant life – increasing intellectual, social, and physical resources.
Seligman also touched on other examples such as sales and Olympic swimming as two situations in which optimism and resilience matter – an optimist will word harder when he thinks he failed, and a pessimist will work less hard.
Throughout the talk, Seligman spoke about tools to increase positive emotions, engagement and meaning – including the gratitude visit, using signature strengths at work, and doing something philanthropic.
Adding to Buckingham’s earlier topics, Seligman spoke about schools in which strengths-based exercises are working, including Strathaven, the UK Schools, and Geelong.
Seligman wrapped up his discussion by tying it to those of Cooperrider and Buckingham. Positive Psychology is the science underlying the case studies of Cooperrider and Buckingham’s research. Seligman ended with a description of the politics of positive psychology, including that not saying “no” is not the same thing as saying “yes.”