Healthy Leaders


The Ideal Praise-To-Criticism Ratio That Triples Your Leadership Impact

Paul SohnPaul Sohn

As a leader, what’s the best way to improve team performance: using positive feedback to praise people’s strengths or offering constructive criticism to help them when they’re off track?

Groundbreaking research by Dr. Marcial Losada says that both are important.

But the real question is – in what proportion?

Dr. Losada studied 60 business teams and tried to determine if there were a set of factors that led to high performance. The factor that made the greatest difference to the most and least successful teams was the ratio of positive comments (e.g., “I agree with you” or “That’s a brilliant idea) to negative comments (e.g., “I disagree with your comments” or “We shouldn’t even consider doing that” or any other sarcastic and disparaging remarks) that the participants made to one another.

The average ratio for the highest-performing teams was 5.6 (that is, nearly six positive comments for every negative one). Medium-performance teams averaged 1.9 and low-performing teams 0.36 to 1.

While negative feedback can be destructive, it is an essential part of the mix. Zenger and Folkman, top research scientists in leadership strengths, give three reasons why negative feedback matters.

  1. It has the ability to grab someone’s attention.
  2. It guards against complacency and groupthink.
  3. It helps leaders overcome serious weaknesses.

But clearly these benefits come with serious cost. Zenger says,

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 behavior, certainly, but it doesn’t cause people to put forth their best efforts.

The real vigor, determination, and creativity can’t be generated from constructive criticisms but from positive feedback. We are emotional and social people at our core.

“No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.” – T. Roosevelt

Zenger’s studies show that for the vast majority of the leaders in their database who have no outstanding weaknesses, positive feedback motivates people to continuous improvement.

Another interesting research by John Gottman’s analysis of wedded couples’ likelihood of getting divorced or remaining married also indicated that the single biggest determinant is the ratio of positive to negative comments the partners make to one another. The ideal ratio is amazingly similar – five positive comments for every one negative comment.

Clearly in work and life, feedback ‒ either positive or negative ‒ has a profound impact in our lives. This doesn’t surprise me. In fact, The Bible compares the tongue to a spark of fire that burns down an entire forest. (James 3:6). That is, the tongue ‒ the words we speak ‒ set the “whole course” of a person’s life on fire. The words we speak are also compared to a tiny rudder that makes huge ships turn.

Words kill, words give life; they’re either poison or fruit—you choose. (Proverbs 18:21 MSG)

So remember, as leaders you hold a very powerful weapon – the words you speak and how you present them have profound implications.

Question: How have you used positive and negative comments to improve your leadership?

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Paul Sohn