Positive psychology experts are finding that the frequency of small, positive acts is crucial in business and personal relationships. Psychologist John Gottman, author of several books on relationships, pioneered research on marriage, which suggested there is a ‘magic ratio’ of 5 to 1 in the effectiveness of positive and negative interactions.
Prof. Gottman (photo at right) found that marriages are more likely to succeed when the couple’s interactions are near a 5 to 1 ratio of positive to negative. When the ratio draws closer to 1:1, the marriage almost always ends in divorce. From observations taken during 15-minute video interviews with 700 newlywed couples, he predicted whether they would still be together with an astounding accuracy of 94% when his team checked 10 years later. ¹
Similarly, in a 2018 research article, Sabey, Charlton & Charlton suggest taking a comparable approach of high positive to low negative ratios in school education to strengthen the relationships between teachers and students.
Also, experienced business consultants Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman in their 2013 article, “The ideal praise-to-criticism ratio” in the Harvard Business Review (subscriber access), said they found it noteworthy that workplace research by psychologists Marcial Losada and Emily Heaphy produced a ratio that was uncannily similar to Gottman’s.
Praise is a vital influence in the workplace as well
What is more effective in improving team performance: (1) using positive feedback to let people know they are doing well, or (2) offering constructive comments to help them when they have strayed from best performance? The answer is: both are important. But then we need to think about the proportion of positive versus negative comments.
Losada and Heaphy studied 60 management teams at a large information-processing company. In the most effective groups, employees were praised much more compared with the number of times they were criticized.
Effectiveness was measured according to financial performance, customer satisfaction ratings, and 360-degree feedback ratings of the team members. The factor causing 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 (ie, nearly 6 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.
However, aspects of the Losada & Heaphy research have been criticized by other psychology researchers. Noting this, Zenger & Folkman said “But we do believe the basic assumption and premise that leaders should provide more positive than negative feedback is correct.”
The principle of a positive versus negative ratio of interactions has stood the test of time for marriage relationships. Relationship researcher Kyle Benson, at the Gottman Institute, wrote a 2017 article, “The magic relationship ratio, according to science,” in which he outlined several ways to create positive interactions in a relationship. Some of those suggestions could be useful to you in your workplace. His view is supported in a 2018 article by the Irish expert in cognitive behavior therapy, Linda Hamilton, who says:
Imagine this scenario. You’ve done a job you’re happy with, and everyone says you did great. Well, almost everyone. There was one one semi-critical comment. Which will you remember – the multitude of compliments or the one minor criticism?
If you’re like most people, it’s the critical comment that you’ll hold on to. Negative experiences stick like Velcro, as neuropsychologist Rick Hanson puts it, while the positives slip away like Teflon.
‘Bad emotions, bad parents, and bad feedback have more impact than good ones, and bad information is processed more thoroughly than good’, writes psychologist Roy Baumeister [also quoted below]. Bad impressions and bad stereotypes are quicker to form than good ones, and more resistant to disconfirmation. Bad words (‘crime’, ‘war’) attract attention quicker than good words (‘love’, ‘peace’). “Hardly any exceptions” can be found,” says Prof. Baumeister: “Bad is stronger than good, as a general principle”.
However, don’t go overboard with your praise of others. If you bestow continued lavish praise on someone, they are unlikely to perceive it as being totally genuine.
“Bad is stronger than good”
One of the main reasons that more positive interactions are needed to counter negative interactions is that humans react more strongly to bad events. Baumeister et al. wrote a seminal paper, “Bad is stronger than good” in 2001 summarizing this phenomenon in human behavior. They said:
The greater power of bad events over good ones is found in everyday events, major life events (eg trauma), close relationship outcomes, social network patterns, interpersonal interactions, and learning processes. Bad emotions, bad parents, and bad feedback have more impact than good ones, and bad information is processed more thoroughly than good. The self is more motivated to avoid bad self-definitions than to pursue good ones…Taken together, these findings suggest that bad is stronger than good, as a general principle across a broad range of psychological phenomena.
We only need to see the way news media audiences are more interested in bad news than good news for us to understand the reason behind this behavior. Baumeister and colleagues say:
Among journalists and communication scientists, it is considered common knowledge that bad events are more newsworthy and attract more reader attention. Periodic calls for the news to focus more on positive, uplifting stories get nowhere, not because journalists are sadists or misanthropes, but because bad news sells more papers [and draws bigger audiences in electronic and web-based media.]
Brain scans confirm the psychological research; there is more electrical activity in the brain when people are shown a picture that conveys negative feelings compared to pictures that stir positive feelings. Similarly, our brains respond to bad news by immediately storing it our long-term memory; in contrast, it takes the brain an estimated 12 seconds to make the same journey for good news.
Managers are notorious for not praising their workers
Most managers fail to realize the importance of giving praise and recognition, even though recognition is one of the most effective drivers of higher levels of employee engagement. What’s more, it is “one of the most easily executed strategies,” according to Gallup consultants. Gallup analysis in 2016 found only one in three US workers strongly agreed that they received recognition or praise for doing good work in the previous 7 days. At any given company, it’s not uncommon for employees to feel their best efforts are routinely ignored. Further, employees who do not feel adequately recognized are twice as likely to say they’ll quit in the next year. Here are the results of another 2016 survey about managers being uncomfortable giving feedback:
A massive, missed opportunity
The element of engagement and performance might be one of the greatest missed opportunities for leaders and managers, say Gallup analysts:
Workplace recognition motivates, provides a sense of accomplishment and makes employees feel valued for their work. Recognition not only boosts individual employee engagement, but it also has been found to increase productivity and loyalty to the company, leading to higher retention.
Beyond communicating appreciation and providing motivation to the recognized employee, the act of recognition also sends messages to other employees about what success looks like. In this way, recognition is both a tool for personal reward and an opportunity to reinforce the desired culture of the organization to other employees.
The employee’s boss is the most important person to give them recognition. Here are some valuable Gallup insights about sources of recognition:
In a recent Gallup workplace survey, employees were asked to recall who gave them their most meaningful and memorable recognition. Gallup’s data revealed the most memorable recognition comes most often from an employee’s manager (28%), followed by a high-level leader or CEO (24%), the manager’s manager (12%), a customer (10%) and peers (9%). Worth mentioning, 17% cited “other” as the source of their most memorable recognition.
You can read more about why and how to give workplace recognition and praise in several of my articles.
Positive suggestions to improve your work and personal life
What should we do to improve the situation? We can’t eliminate the negativity bias, but we can certainly reduce it. The brain has the ability to change. Brain scans show we can rewire our brains (a process known as neuroplasticity) by routinely using cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) exercises. CBT helps you to put your thoughts on trial, to recognize that negative thoughts drive negative feelings, and that these negative thoughts often have little grounding in reality.
In the office and working from home
New York Times writer Alina Tugend wrote in a 2012 article that Professor Teresa Amabile, (photo at right) co-author of the popular book, The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement and Creativity at Work, found the negative effect of a setback at work on happiness was more than twice as strong as the positive effect of an event that signaled progress. And the power of a setback to increase frustration is over three times as strong as the power of progress to decrease frustration. “This applies even to small events,” she said. If managers or bosses know this, they should be acutely aware of the negative impact they have when they fail to recognize the importance to workers of:
- making progress on meaningful work
- taking credit for their employees’ work
- passing on negative information from on top without filtering
- and not listening when employees try to express grievances.
The answer, then, is not to heap meaningless praise on our employees or, for that matter, our children or friends, but to criticize constructively — and sparingly.
Alina Tugend quotes Clifford Nass, professor of communication at Stanford University, who said that most people can take in only one critical comment at a time. “I have stopped people and told them, ‘Let me think about this.’ I’m willing to hear more criticism but not all at one time.”
He also said research had shown that how the brain processed criticism — we remember much more after we hear disapproving remarks than before. This contradicted a technique popularized in the past by Dale Carnegie, known as the ‘criticism sandwich,’ which involves offering someone a few words of praise, then criticizing them, and finally adding a few more words of praise. Instead, Professor Nass suggested it is better to offer the criticism at the start, then follow with a list of positive observations and comments. This approach aligns with the recency effect: Points made at the end of an interaction are the most recent and therefore are more likely to remain in a person’s short-term memory than earlier comments. People are more likely to remember your final points, and act upon them.
At a personal level, keeping a gratitude journal is a good idea, helping you to recognize the many small positives in your life. A daily log of positive events is also helpful. All too often, we complain we’ve had the day from Hell when in reality, one or two stressful encounters may be overwhelming our memory of the good things that happened. Alina Tugend says she keeps a ‘kudos’ file in which she puts all the praise she has received, along with emails from friends or family that make her feel particularly good. And when I got stressed recently I was advised to note in a journal or pad 3 positive things that had happened to me that day. Very helpful and effective!
Jennifer Miller, writer on workplace dynamics makes a great suggestion:
What if, for the next hour of your life, you make a conscious effort to direct your energy into affirming, positive statements? Not a fake, meaningless, “Hey, great job!”, but a sincere, well-thought out acknowledgement. “Sarah, I’d like to compliment you on how you handled that situation with the Purchasing Department update. I could see that tensions were starting to boil over and you stayed calm. It was really helpful when you turned to Jamie and asked for a recap of the budget numbers. That seemed to refocus the group.”
Miller recommends going through the most recent 10 emails you sent. What’s your ratio of positive comments to negative comments in your written words? Do your words inspire people to take heart or deflate? “Encouraging words uplift. Judging words kill motivation. What will you do today to improve your ratio of encouragement?”
The most important first step is simply to recognize that this negativity bias exists and to act accordingly. Be aware that your mind can play tricks on you, and cause you to think that things are worse than they are.
- Rath, Tom and Clifton, Donald O. How full is your bucket? New York: Gallup Press, 2004, p. 51.
- Gottman, John. Why marriages succeed or fail: And how you can make yours last. London: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 1997, p. 57.