The employee saying this sentence said it with full force, in the hallway, right after a follow-up meeting with the manager and other selected employees.
Uhm… yeah?! – was my meek response.
I thought that the recently held employee-day had been fantastic (because I facilitated it of course), and that a lot of good initiatives had come out of it, especially from the employees themselves.
Even the group that the employee behind the outburst was in suggested to me that it had been a really good day. In this group, they had agreed that from now on, the weekly meeting would include a round of success stories as a balance to the difficult challenges they often were in due to their work tasks.
In addition, the manager of the division was very enthusiastic about this new initiative. It fit exactly into the appreciative leadership style that was so important, he said.
Yes, in theory it’s great, that’s not it, the employee continued, but after a couple of meetings it had started to be tiring to have to talk about positive things when everyone has tasks that need attention. Also, the division manager was constantly giving compliments, but it just didn’t feel right. It felt somehow superficial.
Back then I didn’t have any constructive way to proceed on this outburst other than acknowledging the frustration. Afterwards, I have thought a lot about it. At the employee day, there was time to be appreciative, look at what works, share success stories, and learn from it all.
But how can leaders create and up-hold an appreciative, resourceful approach towards and amongst their employees during busy every-day work life?
“Always address a person in her resources first”
– Insoo Kim Berg
Actually, I think I had to complete my entire training as a Solution-Focused Brief Coach before I understood the most important element in solution-focused conversations: the tiny details about what works.
And to be perfectly honest, in the beginning I wasn’t very good at listening in on the fine details in a story. I was actually – exactly like I think some employees experience their leaders who want to be appreciative – positive in a generalising way:
“You are good at keeping the time of the meeting”
Instead of perhaps: “I thought it was really good that you kept reminding us of the long agenda and that we are all responsible for keeping time.”
Or: “Well done with that deadline!”
Instead of perhaps: “I have noticed in my emails that despite the tight dead-line, you managed to keep the quality in the work, especially in paragraph X.”
“Where there is attention, there is going to be learning.”
– Timothy Gallwey
Simple and achievable
My claim is that it doesn’t take more than that. – And it can actually be trained! I myself have experienced that the more solution-focused conversations I have had where my attitude is that I might learn something, the more positive my feedback gets.
This doesn’t happen in every single meeting I have with another person, but the frequency goes up markedly, and I quite simply get better when I consciously keep trying.
What can support appreciation in the day-to-day?
So, in a busy everyday hum-drum, leaders aren’t just supposed to lead, but also to maintain and learn new skills, develop their competences, follow overall strategies, annual plans, budgets, and, and, and – on top of this, they must be appreciative towards every employee and build an appreciative, resourceful working environment!
Not exactly easy. But relax. There is an interesting way to go just in front of you.
In comes: Solution Focus
What makes the Solution-Focused  approach so interesting is that it’s simple, resourceful and always action oriented. And action oriented is the key word here. What you as a leader can do to prevent employees or managers from feeling that all this appreciating stuff is superficial, is to focus on specific actions. And through your questioning, you can support them in getting clear on actions that benefit goals, strategies and help make existing resources visible.
In other words, Solution-Focus is interesting because it is:
- focused on actions. What are your employees doing well in their every-day work? – Details.
- focused on goals. What is it exactly a person or a team is achieving by what they are doing? – Details.
- focused on resources. How do they manage that, together and individually – professionally and personally? – Details.
It is a very interesting and constructive focus to have as a manager on all levels in the organisation, in both successful and challenging times. It opens up for possible new solutions arising that are based on what works already.
”What you look for is what you will see.”
– Harry Korman
Want to get started?
If you want to get started yourself, or maybe just want to fine-tune your abilities in noticing what exactly it is that your employees and teams are doing well, below are some simple recommendations.
These can support your understanding of what works well around you and make you capable of giving a resourceful response to what you observe.
#1 Do it. – Build up your own experience
Why not try it to out for, let’s say, a month? Announce in an appropriate forum what you want to try out, and why you find it interesting and useful for:
- You as a leader
- Them as a group (team or department)
- The individual employee
Oh, and don’t forget to tell them you are human. That means that these are your best hopes, and that you will do your absolute best to observe and listen.
A good place to start is to look at where you know your employees are doing well already, and notice what exactly they are doing there. Write down prompts if that helps you, and inquire into people.
“I have noticed that you have a good, constructive approach to leading the meetings, for example the last one when you (…). How do you manage that?”
In general we are very humble beings, so people might answer something like: “Well, that’s just the way I do it.” But since you have noticed something that you find good, unusual, helpful, inspiring, and so on, you ask another question: “Would you like to think about what you do, because I really think it’s good, and I believe I (we) can learn something from it!”
– Voila! Then you have a solution-focused ball rolling.
#2 Talk about it. – Communicate your intentions and involve people
Be honest and transparent about what you are doing. Why is it interesting to call attention to the smallest details of what your employees do well? Forget about the fancy leadership-buzzwords even though they – sometimes – may make sense. Try instead to explain with your own personal words why you believe this way of focusing on each other can be beneficial for you as leader.
What will the employees notice about each other that works well and deserves attention? What will they notice about you when you are noticing them? How can they help you in your project so you can observe, give back and make more visible what you as a leader appreciate about them?
Don’t forget to ask your employees what they imagine can come out of your project. You already have your clear intentions, so how can it be attractive and make sense for them to join in and try it out too? Note that your project has already begun here, as you are already talking about signs of success.
After trying it out, bring it up i.e. as an agenda item at a meeting, and share your personal experiences:
a) What has changed for you, as a manager, now as compared to before?
b) What have you learned about (or from) your employees?
Then continue with asking questions like these for your employees:
a) What good has this trying out brought with it – from the very first announcement and till now, with me sharing my experiences with you?
b) If it were to become a meaningful part of our culture, what would it look like?
#3 Continuity. – Be persistent and respectful
Sorry, but there is no shortcut to being an appreciative (solution-focused) leader. You’ll have to keep doing it, keep practicing, keep reflecting on what you are doing, and then keep practicing again.
What has helped me to be persistent is especially to set small goals for myself. It is also helpful for me to talk to people about it, because by sharing it, I indirectly create a mutual understanding about my questions. People’s reactions to what I do help me along in the process.
Along with persistence I am aware that if people get that tired look on their face when they see me, it is time to take a (short) break in all the questioning. Remember, it is okay to introduce something new, but it has to make sense to others in the long run.
Sometimes things just went well without any specific reasons. Other times things went well because of hard work you hope not to do again. Then you just have to wait a while before you ask about a specific situation.
Being a solution-focused leader is also about knowing your visiting hours. – And sometimes a “well done” is actually enough. Other times you’ll get a long way by describing and inquiring into what you have heard, seen, and experienced as going well.
Build up experience and nurture engagement
If you try out some of the things on the list above it is very likely that new interesting perspectives and stories will arise around you and your employees. Maybe even in your organisation as such.
And if you at the same time invite your employees to join you in reflecting on the outcomes of this kind of focusing on specific details of what is working, it also enhances the possibility that new, valuable learning arises.
It is valuable for you as a leader to learn about what employees show, but also for employees to learn what you are looking for in their work that shows. After all, don’t forget that you are the one with the strategies, decisions and overall organisational understanding.
 Solution-Focus (SF), is a distinctive way to use specific interactions for people’s preferred future, existing resources and signs of progress. SF was developed by Steve de Shazer and Insoo Kim Berg and subsequently transferred into organisational practice from the late 1990’s on.
More about Solution-Focus and SF Brief Coaching
If you want to know how the Solution-Focused (SF) approach can be helpful in organisations, the case study book ”Brief and Simple – Solution Focus in Organisations” provides a wide range of insights on how SF can be used in praxis.
Read more: www.briefandsimple.com
The main tool in SF is the questions, and if you want to know more about what kind they are and how they can be used, the book ”Coaching – Plain and Simple” offers a thorough walk-through in the land of solution focused conversations.
Read more: www.tinyurl.com/coachingplainandsimple
If you want to take part in a worldwide community of solution-focused practitioners, you can visit SOLWorld on www.solworld.org and join the community’s mailing list on Google all for free.
Jesper H Christiansen is (of course) a Solution-Focused Brief Coach Trainer and Consultant. He’s supporting his governmental and corporate clients towards their goals with participative and appreciative methods.
After discovering the simplicity of working with goals and resources in teams and large groups, the Solution-Focused methodology has become the core competency in all his work.
Get to know more
The coach and consultant: JESPERCHRISTIANSEN.com
The writer: BRIEFCOACH.net
The trainer: SOLUTIONSURFERS.dk (for English: solutionsurfers.com)
The entrepreneur: EDGEWARE.eu