Leadership For The Future


How positive should I be in the workplace?

So how can you get the best out of your team?   Should you offer positive feedback to let people know when they’re doing well, or should you offer constructive comments to help them when they’re off track?

Research from Harvard suggests that this is a trick question. The answer, as one might intuitively expect, is that both are important. But the real question is — in what proportion?

The researchers examined the effectiveness of 60 strategic-business-unit leadership teams at a large information-processing company. “Effectiveness” was measured according to financial performance, customer satisfaction ratings, and 360-degree feedback ratings of the team members.

The factor that made the greatest difference between the most and least successful teams, was the ratio of positive comments (“I agree with that,” for instance, or “That’s a terrific idea”) to negative comments (“I don’t agree with you” “We shouldn’t even consider doing that”) that the participants made to one another. (Negative comments could go as far as sarcastic or disparaging remarks.)

The average ratio for the highest-performing teams was 5.6 (that is, nearly six positive comments for every negative one). The medium-performance teams averaged 1.9 (almost twice as many positive comments than negative ones.) But the average for the low-performing teams, at 0.36 to 1, was almost three negative comments for every positive one.

Negative feedback is important when we’re heading over a cliff to warn us that we’d really better stop doing something horrible or start doing something we’re not doing right away. But even the most well-intentioned criticism can rupture relationships and undermine self-confidence and initiative. It can change behaviour, certainly, but it doesn’t cause people to put in their best efforts.  Only positive feedback can motivate people to continue doing what they’re doing well, and do it with more vigour, determination, and creativity.

This research is echoed in an uncanny way by John Gottman’s analysis of marriage and couples.  The single biggest determinant is the ratio of positive to negative comments the partners make to one another. And the optimal ratio is amazingly similar — five positive comments for every negative one. (For those who ended up divorced, the ratio was 0.77 to 1 — or something like three positive comments for every four negative ones.)

Clearly in work and life, both negative and positive feedback have their place and their time. If some inappropriate behaviour needs to be stopped, or if someone is failing to do something they should be doing, that’s a good time for negative feedback. And certainly opposite views are useful in leadership and team discussions, especially when it seems only one side of the argument has been heard. But the key even here is to keep the opposing viewpoint rational, objective, and calm — and above all not to engage in any personal attack – under the disingenuous guise of being “constructive”.

So how can you (and I!) be more aware of the ratio of positive and negative comments we make in the workplace – and how can we keep it as close as possible to the ideal of 5.6 to 1?