Appreciative Inquiry as a Shadow Process in Communicating Change

Ivana Crestani, Charles Sturt University


Organisational change programs have had a consistently high failure rate for more than twenty years. Communication and culture are often cited among the key reasons for their success or failure, yet there is little research on the role of communication in organisational change. Most of the change management and communication approaches are functionalist, rational and driven from the top. Appreciative Inquiry, based in social constructionism, is explored as a framework for scholars and practitioners to consider in communicating change. While its focus is on positivity, radical thinking is emerging to appreciate the Shadow, including the negative emotions and discourse that erupt during organisational change. Communicating change is reflected through key Jungian concepts to add depth and richness in understanding the communication dynamics during change. With this understanding, Appreciative Inquiry is proposed as a process for scholars and practitioners to consider in creating conversations of meaning, working with the Shadow to improve employees’ sense of feeling valued during change. Knowing how to integrate the Shadow, both positive and negative aspects, and develop connections with the past is a constructive role for communication to perform.


Despite the exponential growth of change management since the early nineties, change communication as a profession and practice is still in its infancy. Organisational change programs have had a consistently high failure rate of about 70 per cent for more than twenty years (Aiken & Keller, 2009). Communication is cited amongst the key reasons for their success or failure (Kitchen & Daly, 2002; Goodman & Truss, 2004; Warner Burke, 2011), yet there is little research on change communication and its role in engaging employees in organisational change (Reissner & Pagan, 2013). Most of the change management approaches are functionalist, managerialist, linear, rational and driven from the top, and recent research argues for a greater focus on the emotional side of change and engaging both hearts and minds (Kotter, 2002; Heath & Heath, 2010). Consequently, the most common approach to communicating change is instrumental, focused on the message-sender-receiver model informing employees about change (Elving, 2005). What is telling is that many scholarly textbooks on change management devote only a few pages to communication. Constructive models of sensemaking, narratives and storytelling are emerging in scholarly research as an alternative approach to communicating change (Boje, 2008; Bryant & Frahm, 2011). With the reported high failure rate of change programs and the role of communication in their success or failure, it makes sense that new thinking and research are required on change communication to facilitate a higher success rate for organisational change programs.

This paper introduces Appreciative Inquiry (AI) and the Jungian Shadow as an alternative way of thinking about communicating change. AI is a positive approach to change and moves away from the traditional problem-focused and deficit discourse, to a generative and constructive approach that builds on organisational strengths. AI was first conceptualised in 1987 by Cooperrider as a doctoral student, and Srivastva, his supervisor, at Case Western Reserve University in the US. With its focus on stories and dialogue, AI could be reconceptualised as a change communication process creating conversations of meaning and understanding, even though it originated from the Organisation Development (OD) discipline. While AI has been criticised for its bias towards the positive, radical discourse is emerging on how to embrace the Shadow as part of the AI process including the negative emotions that erupt during organisational change. Carl Jung used the term “Shadow” to describe the repressed parts, both negative and positive, of our being that are unconscious to us (Fawkes, 2015). When we talk about things we normally do not feel comfortable talking about, we enter the realm of the Shadow (Fitzgerald, Oliver & Hoxsey, 2010). This discourse is considered to be radical in that it moves away from AI’s sole focus on positivity to embrace the negative. Johnson (2013) states that embracing the Shadow must be done with “a radically appreciative gaze” (p. 204) and:

What we typically construe as negative may actually be a potent source of insight that serves more robust “vocabularies of hope” than might otherwise be available. (p. 204)

Fitzgerald et al. (2010) are the key contributors leading the radical discourse on AI as a Shadow process. They identified three AI-Shadow relationships and Masselink (2012) proposed a fourth one. These are discussed later in the paper. Bushe (2012, 2013) proposed that embracing both the positive focus and the Shadow can add to the generativity of AI which he believed to be more important than the obsessive focus on positivity.

Given this background, this paper explores communicating change and the role of Appreciative Inquiry, both as a process for co-constructing stories of meaning and as a Shadow process leading to organisational change where employees feel valued.

Communicating Change and Appreciative Inquiry

Despite the increasing attention by both scholars and practitioners on organisational change and communication, there is limited scholarly literature on change communication (Johansson & Heide, 2008). While there are organisational communication theories and change management theories, there is a gap in change communication theories (Frahm & Brown, 2005), little empirical research (Elving, 2005), and limited advice to practitioners based on theoretical insights (Wray & Fellenz, 2007). Even within this field of limited research and scholars, the different perspectives on change communication, whether functional, subjective or critical can create confusion for practitioners. In their literature review on communication during organisational change, Johansson and Heide (2008) concluded that “…despite the vast academic and popular change literature, communication approaches to change still remain underdeveloped and communication scholars are, with few exceptions, remarkably absent in the field.” Furthermore, scholars recognise the importance of the need for communication executives to take part in change management which “poses a challenge, since this field of practice is not traditionally part of the communication management profession” (Grandien & Johansson, 2012).

There is limited research on “what change looks like and feels like” (Oreg, Michel, & By, 2013, p. 14) from the perspective of employees, or the subjects of change. They are a lost voice or the ‘docile bodies’ that are being changed in the Foucauldian sense. Increasingly, organisations are implementing multiple changes at the one time and with increased frequency, yet there is very little research on what this means for employees (Bernerth, Walker & Harris, 2011; Klarner, By & Diefenbach, 2011). Reissner and Pagan (2013), in wanting to understand management communication activities and employee experiences during a culture change, confirmed that employees respond positively to communication activities where they are listened to and involved, and this makes them feel valued. This supports research I have conducted over the past several years which indicated that “feeling valued” was strongly correlated to engaging employees, and similar findings from Robinson, Perryman and Hayday (2004). With organisations experiencing increased levels of change, scholarly literature is now recognising that what may appear to be employee ‘resistance’ to change, may in fact be ‘exhaustion’ (Passmore, 2011; Heath & Heath, 2010). Given the context of change overload and fatigue, the challenge for communicating change is to ‘switch on’ people who have ‘switched off’. Are employees too tired to hear the messages? Given this situation, a greater spotlight needs to be placed on change communication given its importance for engaging employees. Furthermore, where communication performs well during change, organisations are more likely to report better financial performance, according to a recent Towers Watson study (2012) involving more than 600 organisations globally.

About five years ago, I was fortunate to experience serendipity and meet an Organisational Development (OD) practitioner at a Jungian conference who introduced me to Appreciative Inquiry or AI, a theory and research methodology deeply rooted in social constructionism. Appreciative Inquiry is defined as:
Ap-pre’ci-ate, v., 1. to value; recognize the best in people or the world around us; affirm past and present strengths, successes, and potentials; to perceive those things that give life (health, vitality, excellence) to living systems. 2. to increase in value, e.g., the economy has appreciated in value. Synonyms: value, prize, esteem, and honor.

In-quire’, v., 1. to explore and discover. 2. to ask questions; to be open to seeing new potentials and possibilities. Synonyms: discover, search, systematically explore and study. (Cooperrider, Whitney & Stavros, 2008)

I was already familiar with a strengths approach as I had incorporated the thinking and work of Buckingham and Clifton (2001) in my practice on enabling employee engagement. Given my quest to search for ways of communicating change where employees feel valued, I thought that AI’s focus on ‘valuing the best in people’ was the next step in the journey. At the heart of the AI process is defining the affirmative topic, rather than a problem, which is then questioned through the 4D (or 5D) model, ideally involving all employees in the organisation to discover strengths, dream of future possibilities, design and deliver solutions (Figure 1). AI is energising and empowering through its participatory approach, questions, method of interviewing and process. According to Cooperrider et al. (2008, p. 3):

AI is based on the simple assumption that every organization has something that works well, and those strengths can be the starting point for creating positive change. Inviting people to participate in dialogues and share stories about their past and present achievements, assets, unexplored potentials, innovations, strengths, elevated thoughts, opportunities, benchmarks, high-point moments, lived values, traditions, core and distinctive competencies, expressions of wisdom, insights into the deeper corporate spirit and soul, and visions of valued and possible futures can identify a “positive core.” From this, AI links the energy of the positive core directly to any change agenda. This link creates energy and excitement and a desire to move toward a shared dream.

Appreciative Inquiry

Figure 1. Appreciative Inquiry “4-D” Cycle. Adapted from Cooperrider et al. 2008

AI, while coming from OD, presented a valuable tool to assist with communicating change with its focus on dialogue, storytelling, employee participation and empowerment. I was open to use the process as I had become increasingly disillusioned with the functional change theories, models and frameworks with their abundant checklists and formulas where change is presented in a step-by-step manner, yet change in practice is generally non-linear and messy. In these models, communication is usually listed as one of the steps to address. During this time I had personally experienced redundancy. The following vignette captures my reflection on my dissatisfaction with the functional change models available to practitioners.

VIGNETTE The lost voice in change management

The more I read academic or practitioner published works on change management, the more I am confused. So many models, so many checklists, some appealing and some are so distant from my reality of dealing with change day after day. The formulas leave me cold. Can we reduce the change that organisations and individuals are going through, down to a simple formula? Maybe they appeal to the more engineering, scientific and systems approaches to change. Where are the people, their emotions, fears, anxiety and motivation in the change equation? Maybe it is part of the resistance element. Or should it be called readiness?

The success rates of change programs seem grim. It’s hard to believe that 70% fail. How can I be confident in the theories if there is such a high failure rate? Lewin’s ‘unfreeze’, ‘change’, ‘freeze’ model doesn’t seem relevant today with organisations being in perpetual transition with constant restructuring due to their rollercoaster external environments. I think we’ve entered the age of uncertainty. Maybe we should be managing uncertainty rather than change, as the models seem to suggest there is an endpoint to change or a new beginning. Change seems never ending these days and I’m sure employees will agree, if asked. They will tell us the change is fatiguing and there is no time for recovery. How do we get their voice heard?
Note: Author’s reflection

I found the Discovery process of AI particularly constructive and transformative in that employees generated stories about the past to identify the strengths or the best of the past to bring into the future. It provided the continuity with the past or the “continuing bonds” that Bell and Taylor (2011) identified were important to deal with employee resistance:

AI begins with a focus on organizational continuity, the understanding and appreciation of the system’s connective threads of identity, purpose, pride, wisdom, and tradition that perpetuate and connect day-to-day life in the organization. It is paramount to recognize that continuity is a necessary part of change or transformation. (Cooperrider et al., 2008, p. 23)

Jung and Communicating Change in Organisations

To add depth and richness in understanding the communication dynamics during change, Carl Jung’s concepts of the Ego, Shadow, Persona and Self as originally outlined in 1958 and explained by Zweig &; Abrams (1991), Ketola (2012) and Fawkes (2015), are central to this discussion. Jung believed that our psyche represented the totality of our conscious and unconscious psychological being. At the centre of our consciousness is our Ego which acts “as the main organizer for managing external and internal stimuli” (Fawkes, 2015, p. 123). As mentioned earlier, Jung used the term “Shadow” to describe the repressed parts, both negative and positive, of our being that are unconscious to us. Jung believed the Ego and the Shadow to be inseparable with the Ego casting the Shadow. Zweig & Abrams (1991, p. xviii) express this relationship clearly:

… the personal shadow contains undeveloped, unexpressed potentials of all kinds. It is that part of the unconscious that is complementary to the ego and represents those characteristics that the conscious personality does not wish to acknowledge and therefore neglects, forgets and buries, only to discover them in uncomfortable confrontation with others.

We become aware of our Shadow through projection:

… we see the shadow mostly indirectly, in the distasteful traits and actions of other people, out there where it is safer to observe it. When we react intensely to a quality in an individual or group – such as laziness or stupidity, sensuality, or spirituality – and our reaction overtakes us with great loathing or admiration, this may be our own shadow showing. We project by attributing this quality to the other person in an unconscious effort to banish it from ourselves, to keep ourselves from seeing it within. (Zweig & Abrams, 1991, p. xviii)

Ken Wilbur provides a useful way to understand projection:

Projection on the Ego Level is very easily identified: if a person or thing in the environment informs us, we probably aren’t projecting: on the other hand, if it affects us, chances are that we are a victim of our own projections. (Zweig & Abrams, 1991, p. 274)

The partially conscious Persona masks the Ego. It is the public person or our best face. According to Jung, the Ego, by becoming aware of its Shadow and integrating it, develops into the Self through a dynamic process called individuation to achieve wholeness. Once the Self is established, the mask drops as it is no longer required. Jung believed that individuals strive to realise the Self, although may never achieve this goal fully. He also believed that ignoring and repressing our Shadow would intensify it and require more of our unconscious energy. It is through awareness of our Shadow, both positive and negative, that we are able to integrate it and become whole.

The Jungian concepts presented have been applied to individuals, groups and organisations (Corlett & Pearson, 2003) and are now discussed in relation to communicating change in organisations. As a change practitioner since the early 1990s focused on communication and stakeholder engagement for organisational change programs and projects, I observed and experienced on many occasions how leaders inadvertently communicated change in ways that disengaged a high proportion of employees. The future, or the new vision or strategy, was always presented as exciting and to be embraced while the past was problematic, to be rejected and forgotten, thereby banishing it to the Shadow. At the launch of the ‘new way’, some organisations may include a symbolic celebration for the death of the old way of doing things, as shown in an example from Cameron and Quinn (2011, pp. 117-118):

We know of one organization that held an all-hands meeting with all employees. Balloons were attached to each seat in a large auditorium, and inside each was a slip of paper with the old logo and old vision statement. Each seat also had a pin. At a specific point in the CEO’s speech, everyone was asked to pop their balloons, signaling the end of the old and the beginning of a new vision, strategy, and cultural orientation.

Recent research by Bell and Taylor (2011) challenges the need to break with the past which has been central to many change management methodologies, led by Kurt Lewin’ three-step model for the change process in 1947 consisting of ‘unfreezing’, ‘changing’ and ‘freezing’ the organisation (as cited in Lewis 1987, p. 291). Similarly, Bridges’ transition model (2009, p. 5) is based on three phases:

  1. Ending, losing, letting go
  2. The neutral zone
  3. The new beginning

Instead, Bell and Taylor propose a ‘continuing bonds’ perspective which accepts the past and the present as this has shown to be more meaningful to employees experiencing organisational change, than the “materialist, empiricist tradition of conceptualizing change on a before/after basis” (2011, p. 6).

The notion of employees ‘letting go’ of the past contributes to breeding a fertile ground for resistance, thereby invoking the Shadow. This situation is compounded when a CEO feels threatened and the Shadow is controlling his/her ego. The CEO scares employees into changing (Heath & Heath, 2010, p. 120) through using phrases such as ‘get on the bus, or get off’ and ‘forget the past’, or inducing guilt for not performing up to the standard and ideals required, demanding employees to ‘raise the bar’. I experienced a CEO taking control of all communication to internal and external audiences including writing information pieces and reducing the organisation’s Communications function. When the CEO’s Shadow was projected onto the organisation, employees felt threatened, devalued, anxious and confused. Yet, at the same time, the CEO presented a positive image of the organisation, its mask or Persona, to its stakeholders.

Schein names the feelings that people experience during organisational change as “survival anxiety” in response to imposed change in that it implies that unless we change, something bad will happen to the individual, the group and/or the organization” (2010, p. 301). These feelings can occur immediately, erupting from the Shadow when the change program is announced, with employees realising they need to learn new beliefs, attitudes, values, assumptions and capabilities (Schein, 2009 p. 105) or change their habitus, a concept from Bourdieu (as cited in Brennan, 1988, p. 78). This ‘survival anxiety’ can be amplified if a restructure and redundancies are announced, or expected, with the new change. Resistance is a normal reaction for individuals facing organisational change, going from the known to the unknown (Bovey & Hede, 2001, p. 534). It is the defence mechanism that resides in their Shadow to deal with anxiety. Resistance can be expressed in many ways including anger, hostility, sabotage, being critical, remaining silent, not participating, absenteeism, withholding information, humour (making a joke of aspects of the change initiative) and nostalgia (Bovey & Hede, 2001, p. 537; Anderson, 2011, pp. 74-75). Reissner (2008, 2011), in her work on organisational change, identified three narratives that provided insight into the Shadow, namely stories of “disagreement and confusion that reflect the ambiguity and uncertainty inherent in change”; “stories of inconsistencies and contradictions” and stories of loss and regret of the “good old days”.

These stories do not discount the recognition that some people will embrace change and the opportunities it brings, thereby drawing energy from the positive potential in the Shadow. Nevertheless, one of the issues Cameron and Quinn (2011) and Heath and Heath (2010, p. 106) raise with communicating change is the assumption that individuals are all at the same starting point and have the same level of understanding of those introducing the change:

A common mistake in organizations desiring to improve is that they do not take the time to arrive at a common viewpoint among employees about where the organization is starting from and where it needs to go. Unsuccessful organizations often launch right into a new change program without considering the need to develop a consensual view of the current culture, the need to reach consensus of what change means and doesn’t mean, and the specific changes that will be started, stopped, and continued. (Cameron & Quinn, 2011, pp. 120-121)

This situation suggests that the Shadow of leaders and also those responsible for communicating change “is directing their ego behind the mask of the Persona” (Ketola, 2006, p. 10). How can employees share the same enthusiasm as the CEO when, for many of them, it can mean loss on many fronts, namely loss of identity, status, power, position, competence and group membership (Schein, 2010, pp. 304-305)? The confusion, uncertainty and anxiety that result, strike at the heart of the organisation’s and individual’s identity, creating dissonance between the Ego, Shadow and Persona, leading to questions of ‘who are we?’ and ‘who am I?’ It is not surprising that lack of clarity about the future is met with employee resistance as employees try to make sense of situations where they are asked to be part of a fuzzy future. Their experience and Ego are based in the present and the past (Heath & Heath, 2010; Schein 2010). Leaders, managers, communication and change practitioners are then expected to reinforce the vision or strategy which is still only a promise. Elving (2005, p. 129) states that poorly managed communication during change leads to rumours and resistance, thereby “exaggerating the negative aspects of change”. Consequently, we end up with a situation where both leaders and employees are operating from their Shadow. The Persona of leaders and those communicating change present a positive mask while employees can put on brave face, their Persona, suppressing their emotions and only expressing those that are culturally acceptable. Hoschshild referred to this phenomenon as emotional labour in 1983 (Myers, Hulk & Wiggins, 2012; Yeomans, 2007).

Appreciating the Shadow and Radical thinking

Despite AI’s focus on the positive in change, there is currently radical discourse on how to embrace or appreciate the Shadow as part of the AI process. This discourse brings to light the discomfort that practitioners have experienced in ‘shutting down’ or suppressing the expression of negative emotions, or reframing negative dialogue into the positive (Fitzgerald et al., 2010). Fitzgerald et al. (2010), in leading the radical discourse of AI as a Shadow process, refer to the dissonance between:
…uplifting stories, images, and experiences of AI and some disturbing cognitive and emotional experiences with AI that did not fit the lofty aspirations and claims espoused for it. (Fitzgerald et al., 2010, p. 221)

They identified three AI-Shadow relationships, namely: “(1) AI as generating Shadow, (2) AI as an intervention into Shadow, and perhaps most provocatively, (3) AI itself as a Shadow process” (p.222). Masselink (2012) proposed a fourth AI-Shadow relationship namely, “AI may perpetuate an existing organizational shadow” (p. 42). Bushe (2012) stated that embracing both the positive focus and the Shadow can add to the generativity of AI although he raised concern with the ability of AI practitioners to work with the negative aspects of the Shadow. In my own experience, I have had to reflect on how to embrace the negative aspects of the Shadow. Where individuals had significant anxiety, rather than viewing this as negative discourse, I found it important to appreciate this as the Shadow and to work with it before moving into the positive discourse of AI. This approach rebalanced their Ego through addressing the Shadow. It restored their identity, or as Claxton (2014) called it ‘authentic pride enablement’ in her research on how employees experience feeling valued. In the AI Dream process, employees imagine their future and generate possibilities. This process assists with releasing the positive Shadow potential which flows through the Design and Delivery processes. From experience, I am continually amazed and inspired by the creative potential in employees that is released during this process, with significant innovation proposed.
Boje (2010) is critical of AI in that it concentrates on the positivity narrative and ignores the ‘side shadows’, failing to embrace the different voices in the workplace and ambiguity. He advocates the need “to create safe spaces for those in the side shadows and the main light … to be dialogical, to fully embody their respective standpoints and in that to achieve the cogenerativity that AI explicitly desires” (Boje, 2010, p.240).
While much of the focus of AI has been on the 4 or 5D cycle and affirming the positive core, there is now greater focus in this radical discourse on the eight guiding principles which form AI’s theoretical foundation, summarised in Table 2. Originally, Cooperrider and Srivastva proposed five principles (Cooperrider et al., 2008). Whitney and Trosten-Bloom (2010) added three principles derived from their experience of using AI for organisational and community change. The ‘Wholeness Principle’ and the ‘Free choice Principle’ are considered to be significant as they open up the possibility of appreciating the negative aspects of the Shadow thereby reducing its power and releasing unconscious energy.

Table 2. Summary of the Principles of Appreciative Inquiry

Appreciative Inquiry 2

Whitney & Trosten-Bloom, 2010, pp. 1015-1016.



The radical discourse concerning appreciation of the Shadow that is occurring amongst AI scholars and practitioners is a positive development for AI’s own path to ‘wholeness’. Embracing the Shadow is on the path to wholeness in the Self, where the Ego and Shadow are integrated. On this basis, working with the Shadow, both positive and negative aspects, would be a positive approach for AI, and foster generativity. By not embracing the Shadow, AI is at risk of intensifying the negative aspects of the Shadow.

When practitioners are faced with anxious and negative dialogue, then based on the “Free Choice Principle” of AI, they would be free to choose how and what to contribute and would be enriched through reflexive awareness of their own Shadow, to avoid exacerbating the organisational Shadow. This development may require practitioners to acquire learning and skills in integrating the Shadow as part of the AI process.

Finally, given this emerging radical thinking and reflexive awareness, Appreciative Inquiry is proposed as a communication process for scholars and practitioners to consider in creating conversations of meaning, working with the Shadow to improve employees’ sense of feeling valued during change. Knowing how to integrate the Shadow, both positive and negative aspects, and develop connections with the past, is a constructive role for communication to perform during organisational change.


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About the Author

Ivana Crestani is a Doctor of Communication candidate at Charles Sturt University, Bathurst, Australia. Ivana has over 25 years’ experience as an organisational change practitioner. Her focus is on communication that engages employees in transformational change where they feel valued.

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