Use appreciative inquiry

Learn how to use appreciative inquiry in your role as a leader, manager or supervisor.

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When an employee is distressed because they made a mistake or failed to meet a goal, there can be the temptation to ask a lot of questions to ensure we have enough information to respond. This approach, however, may cause the employee to shut down if they feel accused, overwhelmed or interrogated. Appreciative inquiry is an alternative approach which may help.

What is appreciative inquiry?

The appreciative inquiry model is a strength-based approach to asking questions that can be useful in building or sustaining positive work relationships. It focuses on what could be done differently, without spending time on assigning blame. As a leadership approach, it reinforces positive communications, helps to create a shared vision for the path forward, and promotes learning and innovation.

Try our short eLearning module which includes key concepts related to this topic. You can share this with others or use it as part of a more in-depth learning program.


There is an art to approaching distressed employees in a spirit of appreciative inquiry. This involves asking questions that recognize an employee’s positive strengths by affirming their past and present achievements, abilities and potential.

 Try asking the employee the following types of questions, when opportunities arise:

  • “What do you enjoy most about your job?”
  • “What do you feel are your greatest job skills?”
  • “What tips and strategies have you learned over time for doing your job well?”
  • “How did you get that job/task done so well/quickly/efficiently?”

When an employee is distressed, try asking some of the following questions:

  • “Can you help me understand what works best for you when you are feeling upset/distressed/overwhelmed?”
  • “How can I help you do what you need to do to take care of yourself?”
  • “When you have experienced these work issues in the past, what helped you?”
  • “Are there ways I could help you to best make use of your strengths and skills in this situation?”

Reframe your approach to foster a positive result

The way you ask a question can impact the answer you get. Does the person feel safe or judged? Supported or vulnerable. Use these scenarios to reframe your approach and change the question:

  • “What went wrong with the project?” becomes “What was good about that project?” 
  • “Who on the team caused the most problems?” becomes “What were the best things about how the team worked together?” 
  • “Why didn’t you meet the deadline?” becomes “What could we have done differently to meet the deadline?” 
  • “What are your areas for improvement?” becomes “How did your strengths play a role in the outcome?”
  • “What were the mistakes you made in the past?” becomes “How can we ensure success next time?” 

These types of open-ended, strengths-oriented questions can convey to employees that you value and respect their experience. Appreciative inquiries like these may elicit valuable information that can help you determine how to better manage a distressed employee. Notice the differences in the types of information you receive when you ask questions like these.


Appreciative inquiry provides many benefits, including: 

  • Positive communications 
  • A shared vision for the path forward 
  • Innovation 
  • Higher engagement 
  • Improved morale 


Appreciative inquiry includes the following concepts: 

  • Positive approach – Fosters safe and open interactions. When the dynamic is positive, it supports creative and collaborative problem solving.     
  • Discover – Discover efforts made and what’s working. Take time to appreciate the efforts that have been made helps inspire, motivate and draw out the best in people. 
  • Dream – Dream about what could be, by asking solutions-focused questions.  
  • Assume capacity – Trust that each person has strengths and ask what the person needs to be successful.  
  • Design – Co-create a positive plan for action to leverage ideas with the greatest potential for success.
  • Deliver – Deliver, learn and adjust plans.

10-minute e-learning

Use this PDF as a reminder of the appreciative inquiry model concepts.

An accessible version is also available.

For more eLearning topics, see Microlearning modules


  • Cooperrider, David L., Whitney Diana. Appreciative Inquiry: A Positive Revolution in Change. Barret-Koehler Publishers Inc. (San Francisco), 2005. 
  • Moore, Catherine (2021). What is Appreciative Inquiry? A Brief History & Real-Life Examples. Retrieved from 
  • Stavros, J. M., Godwin, L. N., & Cooperrider, D. L. (2015). Appreciative Inquiry: Organization Development and the Strengths Revolution. Practicing Organization Development: Leading Transformation and Change, 96-116. 
Contributors include.articlesDavid K. MacDonaldDr. Joti SamraJill MagisMary Ann Baynton

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