Sharing stories about personal achievements at work strengthens motivation, pride and mastery experience.
This Fall, I have had the pleasure of seeing what happens when people get the chance to tell others about a personal achievement at work. This is a pedagogical exercise where participants connect in pairs to share stories about something they are proud of having accomplished in the workplace. Some of the stories are also brought out in groups of around fifty people.
Invitation to reflect
The exercise is an invitation to practice Socratic philosophy. It offers a chance to stop and reflect on your everyday practices at work, your routines and habits. In particular, it is a call for examples where you have applied your strengths and succeeded in what you set out to do. What happened when you made an effort and achieved something outstanding at work? That particular question generates a rich and varied set of stories about personal achievements, episodes where the individual has applied his or her capabilities to make a positive difference. A helped resolve a delicate conflict. B took steps to simplify a cumbersome procedure. C turned the process of moving to new facilities into a fun game. D managed to breathe new life into a dismal work environment. E counselled a colleague into thinking more positively.
People are thrilled to get the opportunity to share major and minor stories about personal involvement in success. As a curious bystander, it is rather magical to see and hear them in action. Several participants claim that they are not used to dwelling on their capabilities and accomplishments. In a stressful and hectic work environment, people seem to focus on personal and systemic shortcomings. The exercise of sharing stories about making a positive difference can increase motivation and generate a strong sense of pride in one’s own capabilities.
Requires active listening
When a person who is not used to this kind of activity is invited to dwell on personal accomplishments, the inviter needs to be an active listener. Part of the exercise is that one person takes the role of inquirer. That person can use a set of questions to explore the details of the story. What happened? Why were you successful? What personal strengths and capabilities contributed to your achievement? Who did you receive support from? What have you learned from this experience? With each question, it is possible to dig deeper. What else happened? Which other capabilities came into play? How?
These questions are tools to get people to open up and share their experiences of success at work. They give direction and structure to curiosity. They also help make the subject of the inquiry feel respected and appreciated.
Research in organizational studies shows that looking into and reinforcing what we already are good at is a very powerful and uplifting activity. The concept of appreciative inquiry (AI) is central to studies on how individuals, groups and organizations can boost motivation and pride by focusing on their own strengths.
David Cooperrider and Suresh Srivastva introduced AI in an article from 1987. It has inspired a research direction called Positive Organizational scholarship, where the main assumption is that systematic work to identify personal and common strengths can bring about positive change in organizations. It gives priority to strengths and capabilities, rather than to deficiencies and weaknesses.
Cultivating what we are best at
A counter-argument to this approach is that it appears to forbid us from talking about our difficulties and frustrations at work. We are supposed to be happy and smiling all the time. Criticism and negative input is frowned upon. Such compulsive optimism can lead to frustration, especially in work environments where things are not functioning well.
This is an easy pitfall to avoid. Of course, employees and leaders should have the opportunity to talk about complications and negative developments at work. However, research on appreciative inquiry indicates that we can improve and strengthen our working environment by bringing awareness to what we are really good at. The strengths-based approach generates motivation and pride. It enhances the experience of mastering your tasks at work. My own experience in using this philosophy has been entirely positive when working with managers and employees in organizations.
It has been surprising for me to hear that people are unaccustomed to talking about their accomplishments at work. Why is it not more commonplace to reflect over what we are doing right? By praising our achievements and sharing our success stories, we can lay the foundation for shared enjoyment and magical, collaborative achievements at work.
Cooperrider, D. L., & Srivastva, S. (1987): Appreciative inquiry in organizational life. Research in organizational change and development, 1(1), 129–169.
- This article was published as an editorial on management in Dagens Næringsliv on 3 December 2018.