Mindset Matters: Appreciative Thinking in Times of Crisis

Posted by Alexandra Walker, PhD on 3/25/20 9:12 AM

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Dr. Alexandra Walker has over 20 years of experience in the field of criminal justice and reentry. I have had the honor of being trained by and later working with and for Alex while at Time to Change community corrections.  We would like to share this article she wrote during these difficult times and hope you will find it helpful.  

ACJI provided a free training webinar on Friday March 27th on this subject and here is the link - check it out!


WOW… This last week or two has been grueling for everyone. Put aside the fact that we, as humans, don’t like change in general, the COVID-19 pandemic has really taken us out of our comfort zones and placed us squarely in one of the most uncertain times of the last decade or more. After last week’s events, my colleague, Glenn Tapia, and I were able to spend some time together to share our perspectives on the crisis, and how it is impacting the work of community and justice organizations within our system. As a leader in the justice space, Glenn shared a lot of great wisdom with me about what it has been like for him to support his staff through the uncertainty as well as being responsible for some unprecedented and arduous decisions. I shared my perspective on how this crisis has been impacting our clients and the systems we work within and the multitude of emails we have received asking for support and advice. I found our discussion immensely helpful for me. It has impacted my approach to the crisis in a positive way which has had a measurable impact on those around me. I thought I would share some of our thoughts and perspectives about this crisis with you in hopes that it provides some comfort and strategies that will help you moving forward. I hope this is helpful and that you will share your thoughts and perspective with us as well. 

There is no doubt that the COVID-19 situation has created a crisis situation that is rapidly changing and has no clear end in sight. It presents a number of challenging issues for everyone, especially those who work with, or rely on, other people to conduct their work. As humans, our preference is to live in our comfort zone. If you think about how hard it can be to stick to a new year’s resolution, or embrace a regular exercise routine, you can see how easily we slip back into habit when faced with change. While these examples may seem trivial at a time like this, it demonstrates how we, as humans, struggle with change and uncertainty even when we choose it for ourselves.

The COVID-19 pandemic is not a welcome change and has pushed us well beyond the walls of our comfort bubble. And this can make us feel out of control and fearful about the future. It can be hard to concentrate in an environment where everything is changing rapidly and there is no certainty about the personal, local and global impacts in the near and distant future. You may feel out of control as your day to day life transforms in ways that you are not prepared for. In the most bizarre way, we are getting flooded with information yet still lacking information. You might be struggling with the pressures of remote work, canceled events, internet crashes, social isolation, and being responsible for new and different things. I am here to tell you that this is tough stuff even for the most resilient and flexible of people.

But even in this uncertain time, there are things that you can do to help yourself, and others, manage the discomfort and anxiety that abounds. 

A Fork in the Road

It can be hard to see, but this crisis offers a unique opportunity for all of us. If you think of ‘crisis’ as living at the intersection of danger and opportunity, you can see how we have some choices to make. Too often, we focus more on danger at the neglect of focusing on opportunity. Consider all of the people, teams, and communities who have come together in times of adversity. Some of the highest performing teams are those that have been through trial together and who use the challenges they face as opportunities to learn and grow. There is a real opportunity in crisis to bring people together, to become more cohesive, and to work together through the unknown. As such, we have a choice on where we focus our attention and energy and we can choose to think of this from the perspective of opportunity, learning, and growth.

 One of the things that Glenn and I talk about a lot is where to focus our energy. Consider this, when you fight against something, you focus on the very thing you don’t want. And unfortunately, this is our default setting - to focus on problems and then fight against them. Right now you are likely feeling like you are drinking from a hose of problems, putting out fires minute to minute. Luckily, most of us are adept at problem solving and you are likely solving, and re-solving problems as the days unfold.

And although problem solving is necessary, especially in a time like this, it is not the only option. When you choose to fight for something, you focus on the very thing you do want. You can look for, and focus on, the opportunities of growth, connection, and learning that can come from these experiences. From this lens, and as situations unfold, this is an opportunity to ask yourself a simple question “What opportunity(ies) exist here? How can we experiment, adapt and learn – even if we fail?”

Thinking Appreciatively in Times of Uncertainty

This is a time where we will be asked to stretch ourselves, sometimes well beyond the limits of our comfort zone. Do not underestimate how helpful it is for the people around you to hear you, as a leader, express your honest feelings and discomfort. In a situation like this, humility goes a long way and being authentic with those around you plays an important role in reducing the anxiety that comes from the unknown. There is also an opportunity to train yourself and teach those around you how to think appreciatively and to focus on the opportunities that lie within this difficult situation.

When you think of the word appreciative you might be thinking in terms of recognition and gratitude extended to someone for doing something great. Our definition of the term however, while not fully disconnected from that notion, is separate and distinct. Appreciative, in this sense, means to grow in value. It is the type of thinking that adds value to a problem or situation and is an approach that individuals can take to grow the value of organizational culture and the collective mindsets within it. Essentially, appreciative thinking represents the mindset that builds on opportunity, strives to learn and grow, and builds on what we want instead of staying focused on what we don’t want. It is a mindset that is committed to individual and organizational excellence.

Appreciative thinking is also a skill and therefore something that takes practice to do really well. What I like most about appreciative thinking is that it can be helpful in any situation and, once you have mastered it, can help you to break down situations into clear and distinctive mindset choices.

So, what is appreciative thinking? This concept is based on the idea that there are three ways to think about any given situation:

1.    DEPRECIATIVE Thinking: We can focus on problems and solve them based on way things have always been. Depreciative thinking also involves focusing on negative aspects of a situation and choosing to have a fixed mindset which means to believe that change is unlikely or impossible.

2.    NEUTRAL but Supportive Thinking: From this perspective, we may do something different but only those things that are within our comfort zone. While we choose not to make the situation worse by focusing on the negative, we also aren’t taking any risks to try to fix the situation at hand. This might mean that we move forward with something that we have been on the fence about for some time but still refrain from making any bold moves.

3.    APPRECIATIVE Thinking: This way of thinking has us focused on possibilities and opportunities by stretching outside of our comfort zone, taking calculated risks, and experimenting. We can embrace the stance that we is better than me and work together to create solutions. From the appreciative perspective we stay focused on the vision and take calculated risks to get us there, even if we might not always get things right. It is the growth mindset approach to change and it can be a very helpful way of reframing a crisis or change situation for yourself and staff.  

The following chart provides a few examples of how this works in practice.


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Appreciative Thinking is a Skill…and a Choice

Don’t be fooled. It has been hard for me to see the positive at times, to look for the opportunity and learning in this crisis situation. My default, in many cases is still either depreciative or neutral. But over time and with intentional effort, I have learned to think through these three mindset options as situations arise and it has gotten easier over time. It reminds me that in all situations I have a choice on how to think about a situation and can choose which path to take.

What is most helpful in these times of uncertainty though is teaching this process to others by modeling it to your staff and those around you. We have to be willing to take risks, and to embrace failure, because there is no clear or right answer. If we take calculated risks, learn from our efforts, and come out on the other side as more agile, more innovated, and more united then we have done great things through this crisis. 

As hard as it is, especially in times of uncertainty, choosing to see opportunity and possibility can open the door to focus on what can be, instead of what can't. It is time to adopt a growth mindset, one that embraces learning and challenges, and helping those around us to do the same.

I hope you will join me in using this crisis as an opportunity to develop mindset skills that embrace learning and opportunity. There is no doubt that this is hard, possibly one of the most difficult and uncertain situations any of us will ever experience in our lives. Together, and with an appreciative mindset, we can choose to do everything in our power to come out on the other side of this stronger, more committed, and with the knowledge that we can succeed despite our discomfort.

Join us on Friday March 27th, 2020 to learn more...

If you would like to learn more about appreciative thinking and how to build mindset skills that can help reduce anxiety for yourself and your staff, please join me on Friday March 27th, 2020 at 12pm (MST) for a free, live session of Learn@Work where we will be going deeper into Appreciative Thinking in Times of Crisis. To sign up for the webinar, go to: https://zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_1YI2IOAzTXu7XyWBG-T-Lg

Dr. Alexandra Walker has over 20 years in the field of corrections and reentry. She offers a diverse background in corrections, reentry reform, training/education, implementation science, and treatment modalities. Dr. Walker has a Master’s degree in Criminal Justice with an emphasis in Corrections and Forensic Psychology from John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and a PhD in Sociology from Colorado State University. She worked as a research assistant for the Center for the Study of Crime and Justice on several federal, state, and locally funded research projects. She has worked with both juveniles and adults, in both institutional and reentry settings. She has managed several agency specific and statewide implementation projects involving evidence-informed practices and policies. In addition, Dr. Walker has developed, implemented, and measured fidelity of evidence-based practices and programming in community corrections programs in Colorado. Dr. Walker enjoys giving back to the field by providing training and delivering addresses and workshops to organizational across the U.S. including the American Probation and Parole Association and the Association for Paroling Authorities International. As a skilled public speaker, Dr. Walker provides research and evaluation support to implementation efforts, coaches staff on implementation and behavior change efforts, and develops practices and resources for specialized populations.

To learn more about her work at the Alliance for Community and Justice Innovation, go to www.acji.org. After years of implementing innovative practices across various systems, we continued to encounter the same cultural, leadership, people and data challenges year after year. During these implementation efforts, well-intended people would spend time, money and resources with little to show for outcomes other than frustrated staff and ineffective policy. As a result, we decided to take some action and began an alliance for criminal justice innovation to help systems and people transform the way they work and think about justice to design better systems and achieve better results.  


Alexandra Walker

Alexandra Walker, PhD



Topics: Community Corrections Professional, Implementation, Crisis, Appreciative Thinking

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