Appreciative Inquiry to build a Culture of Kindness

Guest post by Jeremy Scrivens.

Many people feel unengaged and unhappy at work across the Western World. The disengagement level at work has reached a crisis point. Managers need a new ‘toolkit’ to engage people but above all a new lens to view their people: the lens of kind leadership that engages people to give their best in a Culture of Kindness. Let me present the three culture types I see and how Appreciative Inquiry can help to build a Culture of Kindness.

Three workplace types

If we take a closer look at this issue of engagement of people at work, what do we see? There seem to be three types of people at work: the Contributors, the Compliant, and the Subversives.

The Contributors are people who feel a profound connection to their enterprise, colleagues, and manager. They are emotionally engaged with their work; they are happy. They embrace change; they collaborate, are co-creative and motivated by something more than performance; yet they are the best performers. For the Contributors, giving is a bigger idea than getting and they act out their engagement each day through the behavior of kindness.

The Contributors work for organizations and leaders who encourage, coach and develop these kind behaviors as the highest expression of being and doing well at work. These leaders create kind or virtuous organizations. Most engagement surveys call these people Engaged. At present between 15 and 30% of the Western workforce is engaged or Contributing.

The second type at work is Not Engaged or Compliant. They do the minimum required in their work; they often wish they were somewhere else, and they focus on what is in it for them. They focus on rewards and what they can get, rather than what they can give. They tend to be risk adverse, driven more by compliance than a search for collaboration and creativity.

The Compliant works for Deficit Mindset managers who focus on control, efficiency and performance, rather than kindness and compassion. Strangely, the Compliant are not performing at their best, even though the focus is on performance! Rarely do they experience kind leadership.

Around 50 to 60% of workforces are Compliant; the highest number in history and it is no coincidence that we see the Western marketplace under the greatest level of compliance and regulation in its history.

culture types

No wonder more people are unhappy at work. Compliance cultures are not kind. When you talk with many compliant people at work, they tell you how much they would love to have leaders who engage them around contribution, not compliance. They want to be happy, and they are waiting to respond to kind leadership. Research shows that the Contributors are worth four times more to the organization’s bottom line than the Compliant.

The third group of people may be called the Subversives. This group is not just unhappy, they act out their unhappiness at work, everyday undermining what their colleagues accomplish either physically through damage and industrial sabotage or by opposing positive change. More often than not, the Subversives have experienced the opposite of kindness at work, which is cruelty. Either cruelty from a leader or an uncaring, unloving system. An example of cruelty is bullying, another is violence.

Kindness is a Bigger Idea than Performance

There are innumerable surveys on what engages people to be happy at work; engagement surveying has become quite an industry. While surveys differ, it is possible to see recurring themes around what constitutes high levels of engagement at work. The most engaged people are consistently contributing, and work for kind leaders who have taken the time to build a kind culture. Contributors give their all to their work because they are emotionally committed, not rationally committed. Emotional means engaged ‘from the heart’, not the head.
People are more motivated by what they can give than by what they can get Click To Tweet

Contributors work for leaders who take the time to engage them as unique individuals, not as cogs in the factory machine or ‘human capital’ register. They ask their people: “How can I help you be more of who you are at work so that you can contribute your best?” This helps people to be kind and generous to others, both colleagues, and customers.

The Compliant are engaged rationally by their managers, and the conversation is usually around “what do I get?” and it often becomes adversarial, rarely rising above the subject of money, working conditions, performance outputs, compliance, efficiency improvement and negative consequences for poor performance.

We live in an age when it is supposed to be all about me and my success, yet the research shows that people, including the Gen Y and the Millennials, want to be engaged from the heart around something bigger than themselves. Blessing White’s international 2011 Employee Engagement survey concluded that the best leaders “create a culture and workflow where people are inspired to give more than they get.”

Many people are quitting jobs because they worked for leaders and organizations who did not show them sufficient kindness. Many of these people do not have other jobs to go to; they have simply had enough. This trend will get worse for those leaders who do not manage by a code of kindness. The Millennials won’t put up with unkindness at work, and they will tweet or post on Facebook about their experiences. What will they say about your organization; is it kind, cruel or indifferent?

Contributors work for Positive Leaders

The best workplaces, defined as those that achieve exceptional contribution from their people, develop a Culture of Kindness, which they nurture, develop and sustain over time, even when cash flow and economic times are tough.


We can call these Positive Organizations, and they focus on creating an abundance of good and positive things, as distinct from the mainstream business practice for 300 years which focuses on preventing bad things from happening, on fixing problems and eradicating errors, on narrowing the deficit gap rather than building the Abundance Bridge.

Kind, positive leaders:

• Take the time to discover and extend their unique strengths, as a company, as teams and as individuals, through collaborative whole group approaches such as Appreciative Inquiry.

• Rather than spend time preventing bad things happening, Kind Leaders spend time looking for the good in their organizations and how to extend good to grow. So rather than trying to find out the causes of bullying, instead they look for great examples of kindness – the opposite of bullying – and work with their people to co-create a Culture of Kindness by discovering and extending what works or what is good.

• Take time to engage their people from the heart, which means taking them off the dance floor regularly to discuss matters that are deeply important to them. Kind Leaders involve their people in shaping the future of the organization, starting with questions such as who are we, what do we care about and what is our destiny together?

• Treat every person as a unique human being, and they help each person to be more of who they uniquely are at work and yet manage to align these talent differences around authentic relationships and high trust teamwork. Kind Leaders build and sustain caring, compassionate community at the core of the organization.

Appreciative Inquiry (AI) to Build a Culture of Kindness

Many business improvement methodologies focus on what’s broken or not working. Traditional change or improvement methodologies concentrate on problems and energy is spent on fixing what is broken or prevent bad from happening. The focus is on returning to the status quo. The world view is that of diagnosis; identify the cause of something e.g. bullying and fix it.


Evidence is now on the board table that many of these problem-solving initiatives fail to deliver or achieve less than promised because they create distrust and a culture of blame and buck-passing. They also try to isolate problems thereby breaking down the connections between people that are the source of positive community, creativity, and collaboration in enterprises and communities.

Focusing on problems closes down the thinking processes around creativity and innovation because the goal is to return to the status quo, not on looking outside the existing box. The driver of this behavior is fear, and the goal is controlling and, unfortunately, many of our managers operate from this mindset because this is what they have been taught, what they have experienced and what is measured; they have been taught deficit or industrial leadership.
Is your organizational #culture kind, indifferent or cruel? Click To Tweet
Appreciative Inquiry or AI looks to discover what people like best about the topic of inquiry, the service or each other as team members or customers. It connects people, team members, and customers, in authentic, engaging conversations around stories of when the topic has been at its best.
Listening to these stories gives hope and releases creative energy; firstly to discover the unique strengths of the organization, team or service. Next, to envision new possibilities by building on this positive core and aligning the organization around these strengths. Because people on the ‘ground floor’ are involved in contributing to the design of the changes, they develop high engagement with what is proposed, and you see a rich and diverse range of ideas and possibilities emerge.
AI is built around four conversations: discover, dream, design and deliver. The process is highly interactive, with participants interviewing each other to identify peak experiences and strengths through positive stories that are meaningful to them. Here’s how it applies to building a Culture of Kindness.

Topic: How do we turn Random Acts of Kindness in our organization into the normal experience for our customers and us?

Discover: When have you experienced Random Acts of Kindness in our organization and what are the themes around what these are, how they occur and why?

Dream: What is possible if we extended our Random Acts of Kindness so this became the normal experience for us, not just random but as part of the everyday experience as a Culture of Kindness; what are the opportunities?

Design: What will we decide to do to extend our kindness strengths including what existing practices will we extend, what will we stop doing and what new things will we do?

Deliver: What will be our priorities and plan of action to implement our unique Culture of Kindness?

Case Study – Freshest Fruits Australia

I’d like to share a story about the power of Appreciative Inquiry to discover Random Acts of Kindness and to extend these to become a Culture of Kindness. It is not utopia, but it can be done! This case about the use of AI with the company Freshest Fruits is available for download for members.

Positive organizations create a #culture of abundance Click To Tweet

One conclusion to share right now: the director of Freshest Fruits said afterward: “The highlight for me was seeing all of us at Freshest Fruits as a family serving each other, then passing that service on to the customers. The penny dropped a few weeks ago when we had a new grower show up one morning unannounced. Because of all the work we were doing in releasing everybody’s natural talents and creating a positive culture, I was free to spend the whole day with this new potential customer. I realized after we won the business how important it is to spend as much time at the level I best serve the team. If I had been worrying about where the next pallet of bananas had to go like I used to, I might have missed the opportunity to get the new business and develop the team.

I have also come to the realization that it is the duty of all leaders to empower everyone they lead, not to hold on to all the information and treat others as if they were inferior human beings. Empowering, making the team responsible and accountable, that’s what has given me the freedom to live a fulfilling life. I wasn’t even living before – I was just working, eating and sleeping: now I am free.”

Jeremy Scrivens is an Australia-based Work Futurist and Social Business Culture Catalyst and the director of The Emotional Economy at Work.

Marcella Bremer is an author and culture & change consultant. She co-founded this blog and

Please help me spread positivity by tweeting, liking, and commenting!

Sign up for the update

Leave a Reply

This Post Has 7 Comments

  1. Kevin Brownsey

    I think there is (at the very least) a fourth type. The ‘game-changers’, the people that make change happen. They don’t just follow (leaders) and contribute or comply or resist change, they drive it.

    1. Marcella Bremer

      Possibly, Kevin. I’d say that contributors contribute in every way including changing the game and stirring innovation and change. We’d have to ask Jeremy Scrivens (the author of this guest post) what he has to say about your suggestion.

  2. Christopher

    Thank you for this. Years ago I was invited into the CEO’s office where he told me that I had reached the top of my career ladder. I was 36 and running the largest, most profitable division in the company at the time. We had improved employee scores, curbed employee turnover and increased profits with smarter practices. When I asked the CEO what I was missing to get to the next level, he simply told me I was, “Too Nice”.

    I lament that too many people in business today still believe that you cannot be kind, or nice, and still be effective. An employee once reminded of the adage that “an ounce of honey will attract more flies than a gallon of vinegar.”

    1. Marcella Bremer

      Thank you for sharing that, Christopher. That’s a beautiful though sad example of how kindness and appreciative inquiry is still perceived in many businesses. That’s exactly why I write this blog: to help people make a difference with kindness and showing ways to make it work!

  3. Saira Khan

    With “employee engagement” being a buzzword, and organizations working hard (so it appears) to drive it , it is therefore surprising to learn that stats tell a different story…….This article puts forward the notion that a combination of a positive organization, kind leadership and intrinsically motivated employees is undoubtedly the formula which results in engaged and committed employees, something that most companies don’t seem to get for whatever reason………A new leadership attribute, “kindness” is described, which gives rise to “the contributors”. These are employees who want to be engaged from the heart around something bigger than themselves….. “Contributors give their all to their work because they are emotionally committed, not rationally committed. Emotional means engaged ‘from the heart’, not the head.” This idea resonates deeply with me as an employee in terms of wanting to work in a culture that nurtures, inspires, fosters growth & exceptional levels of performance……it can’t get better than this!

  4. Dianne

    Recently, a colleague was awarded a massive amount of money to do some work in building capacity for better customer service in an health care environment that gets a lot of badly behaving customers. Frequently, the staff get caught up in reacting to the fear and anger they are dealing with. However, this colleague is proposing to use the tools she is able to resource to ” performance manage” the staff. I am concerned as I think it is important to train people to stay out of the drama triangle, give them skill to manage conflict and to encourage them to be kind, yes hold them accountable, but not punitively. This is not an easy work. We think we may benefit from asking customers for feedback as to what works well for them…any suggestions?

    1. Marcella Bremer

      Dianne, I agree with you. My suggestion would be to use the AI process as described and provide people with a couple of communication techniques to deal with scared and angry customers. I don’t know what “performance manage” the staff entails but it sounds as putting pressure on outcomes while what you may need is a different way of dealing with customers: the HOW instead of the WHAT. But, please note, this is general advice as I don’t know the team you’re talking about – only my 2 cents.