International Journal of Appreciative Inquiry


Can a Leader Be Too Appreciative? – Freddie Crous

Authors Kaplan and Kaiser have postulated that too much of a good thing – such as being too appreciative – can actually be detrimental to both the individual and the organisation. However, a more recent study by Charlotte Crisp has found there cannot be too much appreciative leadership if the aim is to increase work engagement.

Can a Leader Be Too Appreciative?

In a 2014 literature study, a former Master’s student of mine, Charlotte Crisp, found that many organisations which strive towards high employee engagement do so by encouraging those in leadership positions to employ appreciative behaviours alongside their task-orientated leadership behaviours. As such, the regression line between appreciative leadership and employee engagement should be linear, suggesting that as appreciative leadership increases, so will employee engagement.

Then we stumbled upon the work of Kaplan and Kaiser (2009; 2013), which suggests that an individual (e.g. a manager or leader) may demonstrate too little optimal, or too much, appreciation – each of which may have a unique effect on the organisation’s employees. Moreover, the authors postulate that too much of a good thing – such as being too appreciative – can actually be detrimental to both the individual and the organisation.

My colleague Deon de Bruin and I subsequently challenged Charlotte to test Kaplan and Kaiser’s suggestion that the relationship between appreciative leadership and work engagement is curvilinear, meaning that too much or too little appreciative leadership is negatively related to work engagement, while optimal appreciative leadership is positively related to work engagement.

She took up the challenge and developed the Appreciative Leadership Questionnaire  with the aim of measuring five strategies of appreciative leadership: inquiry, illumination, inspiration, inclusion and integrity (Whitney, Trosten-Bloom & Rader, 2010). Each strategy was measured using two items; the scale therefore consisted of a total of ten items. Each item presented the participants with a scenario, and the questionnaire required the participants o select one of three responses (in each case) that best described how their leader would most likely react in a given situation. The three possible responses were structured to represent a team leader/floor manager who is respectively unappreciative, optimally appreciative, or overly appreciative. An example of an item from this questionnaire is: “I feel overwhelmed, because I believe that I do not have the skills required to successfully complete my work tasks. I approach my team leader to explain this. My boss is most likely to…”.

The participants were required to choose one of the following responses:

(a) highlight my weaknesses or skill deficiencies;

(b) highlight my strengths, and align them with compatible and attainable target outcomes; or

(c) overemphasise my strengths.

For the measurement of work engagement the UWES-9 (Schaufeli, Bakker & Salanova, 2006), which is a shortened version of the Utrecht Work Engagement Scale (UWES) developed by Schaufeli and Bakker (2004), was used. The scale, which has sound metric properties, measures work engagement in terms of three factors: vigour, dedication and absorption.

Charlotte conducted her research at a call centre in the Gauteng province of South Africa. Her sample (n = 171) consisted of call centre agents and their team leaders. The results of Charlotte’s study do not support Kaplan and Kaiser’s claim, indicating that the relationship between appreciative leadership and work engagement is not curvilinear, but linear: as appreciative leadership increases, so does work engagement. Furthermore, the results show that there are, indeed, only two significant categories of appreciative leadership, namely under-appreciation and over-appreciation. Charlotte’s study implies that there cannot be too much appreciative leadership if the aim is to increase work engagement. Moreover, as far as her findings are concerned, there appears to be no optimal level of appreciative leadership.

Freddie Crous

Freddie is professor of Industrial Psychology at theUniversity of Johannesburg, where he co-chaired the 2015 World Appreciative Inquiry Conference with Anastasia Bukashe.

References of this article you can find in the issue of February 2016.

One comment

  1. Freddie, I love this – and it supports what we continue to advocate – that AI is not “pink cloud thinking” but a proved approach to enhance human interaction and therefore also improved relationships and everything that comes with it – well being, productivity etc.
    Must re-read the whole article and use it in our AI training in the Lincoln Workshop Series!
    So important to continue this research.

    Thank you!

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