The Heliotropic Effect

Sunflowers sun clouds

 Appreciative Inquiry [AI] is the theory and practice of organizational transformation developed by D. Cooperrider and S. Srivastva in 1992 at Case Western University. AI focuses on what works well for people as opposed to what doesn’t. During the process, members of an organization co-create a picture of the positive future organization they imagine using images and words. Research shows that this helps people to actualize what they envision. The AI founders called this the Heliotropic Effect. The concept, borrowed from botany, refers to the tendency of certain plants to continually turn towards sunlight. “Like a plant that grows in the direction of the light source, individuals and groups strive to grow towards the positive image they hold” [D. Cooperrider, 1990: appreciativeinquiry. org].  As Dr. Kim Cameron notes in ‘The Heliotropic Effect of Abundance’, “all living systems are inclined toward that which gives life” (Making the Impossible Possible: Leading Extraordinary Performance: The Rocky Flats Story, 2006).

The heliotropic effect operates on an individual and group level. Our own positive images and related expectations help generate it. It is also generated when others have positive expectations of us. It occurs even when individuals are exposed only temporarily to life affirming, positive behaviours.

heliotropic effect

There are various ways the heliotropic effect works. For example, in healthcare, it manifests as the Placebo Effect. Positive visualization is effective 60% of the time in aiding the healing process post surgery. In education, this manifests as the Pygmalion Effect. Research indicates that positive expectations from a teacher have more impact than IQ on achievement. More generally, “the heliotropic effect not only produces elevated performance, but also it provides amplifying benefits—escalating, self-reinforcing performance—and buffering benefits—the development of resiliency and the ability to absorb negative influences” [Kim Cameron, The Heliotropic Effect of Abundance]. As Cooperrider states: “Human systems are largely heliotropic in character, meaning that they exhibit an observable and largely automatic tendency to evolve in the direction of positive anticipatory images of the future’.

Howard Esbin, PhDThe Heliotropic Effect