What’s Your Praise/Criticism Ratio?

Over the past 30 years, renowned marriage counselor John Gottman has been able to predict with 90% accuracy which newlyweds he works with will stay married versus getting divorced after watching just 15 minutes of their interactions on videotape. 

The key factor that Gottman looks for is the ratio of positive to negative reinforcement that couples give to each other.  When the ratio is 5 to 1 positive, the couples report the overall relationship as positive.  Anything less than 4 to 1 and the relationship is perceived as negative. 

Why does it have to be slanted so heavily in the positive direction?  The answer is emotion.  The emotional response surrounding each praising or criticism amplifies its impact.  For most people, criticism is stinging and leaves a far larger emotional footprint than positive praising. 

Leaders can promote healthy relationships with the people who report to them by praising and reprimanding effectively.  Here are three tips.

  1. Be timely. Nobody likes to deliver negative feedback.  But some managers have trouble delivering positive praising also.  Uncomfortable with the whole situation, these managers believe that by not communicating, at least they are doing no harm.  But the reality is that “not communicating” is sending a message.  If your boss never communicated with you about your work, how would it make you feel?  What message would it send to you?  People want to matter and they want to be noticed.  As a manager, it is your job to make sure that you are paying attention to your people.
  2. Be specific. Feedback is best when it is specific.  A general praising of, “You’re doing a great job!” is nice, but a more specific praising of, “The way you ran that meeting today was fantastic.  You really did a good job of having all of the background information ready and also redirecting the discussion when it was getting off track,” is better.  When it comes to negative feedback, it is even more important to be specific.  Consider how damaging a comment like, “You really don’t seem to understand how we do things around here,” is.  Instead be more specific.  Say, “We have a very specific process for approving email that needs to be followed.  Anytime something new is created, please make sure I see it first and have a chance to review it before sending it out.”  This turns criticism into redirection—which is what you’re looking for.  Even though it will still hurt, you want to keep the focus on the behavior that needs to change.  If you don’t, the recipient will only remember how you made them feel and the necessary change will be an afterthought. 
  3. Be aware of your emotional impact. Remember that negative feedback is serious business and carries five times the emotional weight as positive feedback.  Anytime that you find yourself having to deliver a reprimand, make sure that you follow it up with a reaffirmation of the person and their abilities.  This doesn’t mean that you backtrack or soften the reality of what needs to change, it just means a reconfirmation of your faith in the direct report to do better and your belief that they can change. 

By mastering the art of positive and negative feedback, managers can strengthen their relationships with direct reports.  Keep in mind both the quantity and the quality of the messages you deliver.  It’s an important skill that will keep people engaged and performing at their best.

6 thoughts on “What’s Your Praise/Criticism Ratio?

  1. This is so very true. One additional perspective is to, when possible, replace the word “criticism” with “correction”. Criticism can tend to tear down. I have often heard people use the term “constructive criticism”. If criticism can tear down, how do you tear down and build (construct) at the same time?

    We need to develop people that will take correction. How the correction is delivered will determine how well the people receive the correction. Then, we can focus on the true goal, of developing people that are equipped to learn, receive correction, and redirect their efforts.

    Correcting mistakes is how we learn to play a musical instrument, play a sport, or perfect a skill. When we can show that we correct our own mistakes, and help others correct theirs, we move in our best roles as performance coaches. That is one of the functions of leadership.

    Steve Crawford

  2. Excellent post. I hope the leaders of the world are paying attention. This is also an important factor in driving organizational culture, and the behaviors of those around a specific leader– higher level manager, peers, and direct reports. I often think that leaders don’t fully understand their impact. It’s a shame.

    Thanks for sharing this thought!

    Deirdre McGee

  3. Great post. Thanks for sharing.

    As a leader training other leaders in my organization, I’ve found that some people are resistant to getting into the habit of praising their people when they do something well.

    The most effective way to get them into a praising habit is to praise the heck out of them when you see or hear them praising one of their people. Works like a charm.

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