Appreciative Collaboration

Pattern number within this pattern set: 
Stewart Dutfield
Marist College

Collaboration toward a shared goal is not always an uplifting experience; sometimes the problem is that there always seem to be problems. People can become discouraged in their work toward some common good. They suffer a dissonance between, on one hand, their enthusiasm for an uplifting cause and, on the other, the gritty reality of bringing it about. What seems at the outset to be a life-enhancing enterprise can produce frustration, burnout and turnover of group members.


To pursue a shared goal is to seek a positive impact on the world: what David Cooperrider (1990) describes as a heliotropic movement, toward the light of a positive image of the future. As long as the group visualizes the positive contribution that its work will make, it will approach its work with optimism and hope. If pursuing the goal appears as the remediation of a deficit rather than movement toward a positive image, over time a focus on the negative will emerge.


Conflict can affect a group of people positively or negatively; it can be functional or dysfunctional. Some level of conflict can lead to creativity, responsiveness to change, and learning from experience. Conflict becomes dysfunctional when it produces feelings of hostility, interferes with honest communication, and distracts from the shared goal. People become frustrated when conflict prevents them from achieving what they want to achieve. They may react through aggression, compromise or avoidance; each of these makes the situation worse than it was. The result is a diversion of the group’s attention to perceived problems with the collective enterprise: a language of deficit in which not merely the shared goal, but the group itself becomes a problem to be solved.

Geoffrey Bellman writes of the commitment, passion, and “aspiration for a larger life” (2000, p. 68) which energize people who seek to change the world for the better. If we can see the beauty in our collaborations, we can release the creativity that comes from a compelling vision of a future worth working for.

Human beings, the groups and organizations we work in, and the world we inhabit all contain the potential for this larger life. Through consistent attention to what is alive, and to what can be alive in the future, we can become more alive. The belief that that people are good and that they respond positively to being treated accordingly is well-grounded in research on the Pygmalion effect (Cooperrider, 1990). We respond to positive images of ourselves by regarding others more positively: by noticing their successes, remembering their strengths, and seeing challenges from a positive aspect.

An appreciative approach adopts a fourfold cycle of discovery, dreaming, design and destiny (Cooperrider & Whitney, 1999). It starts not by identifying a need or deficit, but by discovering the best of the current situation. It dreams or envisions what a better future might be, rather than analyzing what caused the deficit. In place of planning how to redress a deficit, it collectively constructs a design for a better future. Instead of acting to resolve a problem, this approach enacts a better future as its destiny.

To enact a better future suggests that a life-affirming end is a natural outcome of life-affirming means; we aspire to larger life in the world through larger life in ourselves and in our collaborations. If we learn to be drawn together by a positive image of each other, our collective effort “enhances the potential for creative, fresh human action toward a life-enhancing purpose” (Srivastva & Barrett, in Srivastva & Cooperrider, 1990, p. 386).

This can succeed if we continually revise our expectations of what we can achieve: to open new possibilities for ourselves, for those we collaborate with, and for the world we hope to improve. This requires that we continually learn by developing and revising “the norms, strategies and assumptions which specify what work gets done and what work is important to do” (Dixon, 1999, p. 48). We need to maintain a dialogue, with ourselves and others, about our individual and shared assumptions.

To better understand the value of others, we must suspend our own assumptions. People are seldom malicious or idiotic, but they often work from different assumptions; once we can understand these assumptions we can appreciate their value. For this reason, appreciating differences is critical to collaboration. Once we appreciate others’ concerns (Spinosa et al., 1997), we can embark on a dialogue about how to work together.

Appreciative collaboration assumes that differences are valuable, and focuses attention on what is positive in any situation; in place of a vocabulary of deficit, it offers a forward-looking language of hope. Combined with a clear shared vision, appreciative collaboration allows us to achieve life-affirming goals through life-affirming means.


Positive images of the future lead to positive actions. Consistently build positive expectations for the future on the basis of positive attributions to what has been achieved in the past. Constantly learn the value of others, and be prepared to change cherished assumptions if they undermine the larger life of the group.

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