The magic ratio for giving praise
Positive psychology experts are finding that the frequency of small, positive acts is crucial. Psychologist John Gottman pioneered research on marriage, which suggested there is a ‘magic ratio’ of 5 to 1 in the effectiveness of positive and negative interactions.
He 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 ten years later. ¹
Praise applies to the workplace as well
This ratio can be used as a guide in the workplace as well. A study found work groups with positive to negative interaction ratios greater than 3 to 1 were significantly more productive than teams that didn’t reach this ratio. However, there appears to be an upper limit – things can worsen if the ratio goes beyond 13 to 1 as people realize the atmosphere isn’t grounded in reality. ²
Other researchers applied these findings to the world of business. The Chilean psychologist Marcial Losada, for instance, studied 60 management teams at a large information-processing company. In the most effective groups, employees were praised six times for every time they were put down. In especially low-performing groups, there were almost three negative remarks to every positive one.
Losada’s controversial ‘critical positivity ratio’, devised with psychologist Barbara Fredrickson of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and based on complex mathematics, aimed to come up the perfect formula of 3-6:1. In other words, hearing praise between three and six times as often as criticism, the researchers said, sustained employee satisfaction, success in love, and most other measures of a flourishing, happy life. ³
However, the data used in the Losada research has been discredited within their profession. Nevertheless, experienced business consultants such as Zenger and Folkman in their article “The ideal praise-to-criticism ratio” in the Harvard Business Review of 15 March 2013, said “But we do believe the basic assumption and premise that leaders should provide more positive than negative feedback is correct.”
US managers are notorious for not giving sufficient recognition to their workers, and so the concept of workplace praise provides good potential for future research.
- 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.
- Losada, M, & Fredrickson, B. (2005). ‘Positive Affect and the Complex Dynamics of Human Flourishing,’ American Psychologist.