Stay in Touch

Subscribe to my monthly e-zine and get blog posts and other leadership resources delivered to your inbox.
What’s More Critical To Team Development – Being Positive, or Being Real?

What’s More Critical To Team Development – Being Positive, or Being Real?

I recently saw a Harvard Business Review blog post titled “The Ideal Praise-to-Criticism Ratio.” You may have seen it, too – or at least come across the idea. The basic point is that the verbal communication on high-performing teams (or in happy marriages) is consistently more positive than negative. This particular HBR post cited research that put the ideal ratio at 5 positive comments to 1 negative one.

Now, it’s only fair to let you know that a close colleague once said to me, after he’d heard me say, “I’m a glass half-empty kind of girl,” “Yeah, and your glass is chipped and cracked, and you don’t like what’s in it.” Which was so accurate that I had to burst out laughing. So, I admit I may be wired to be skeptical of any research on positivity. Still, there’s something dissatisfying to me about the simple equation “positive interactions = high performing team.” So, I went looking for the original research to see if it really was as simple as that.

I found it in a paper called “The Role of Positivity and Connectivity in the Performance of Business Teams,” published in 2004 by Marcial Losada and Emily Heaphy. (If you read it yourself, I suggest having a mathematician sitting next to you.) This is the essence of their research, as I understand it:

  • There are three variables in how teams communicate that interact in complex and non-linear ways and are correlated with team performance.
  • These variables are the dimensions of 1) inquiry/advocacy, 2) positivity/negativity, and 3) internal focus/external focus.
  • High performing teams consistently differentiate themselves from medium and low performing teams along these dimensions.

What are the differences? On high performing teams, members successfully balance advocating for their positions with inquiring into others’ perspectives (roughly a 1:1 ratio). They also balance an internal focus on the team with an external focus on the environment (also roughly a 1:1 ratio). Low and medium performing teams tend to be unbalanced toward advocacy and an internal focus.

And what about the notorious positivity/negativity ratio? Losada and Heaphy found that on high performing teams positive comments outnumbered negative comments by a ratio of 5.6 to 1. On medium performing teams the ratio was 1.8 to 1, and on low performing teams there was 1 positive comment for every 3 negative comments. Positive comments were defined as support, encouragement, or appreciation. Negative comments included disapproval, sarcasm, and cynicism.

So, a positive atmosphere that is reflected in the way people talk to one another is clearly a factor in team performance. And, the research still leaves me with more questions than answers:

  • What if “negative” comments, of disagreement or challenge, were stripped of sarcasm and cynicism and delivered skillfully? Would they still be linked to poor team performance?
  • If a team maintains a very positive atmosphere but doesn’t achieve a balance of inquiry and advocacy, would they still perform at high levels?
  • Is it really as simple as saying, “if you want a high performing team, say positive things?” Or is there something else going on that drives both performance and a positive orientation?

I began to wonder what would happen if we shift the emphasis away from being positive, and toward learning and truth-telling. In other words, being real and vulnerable with each other. What if leaders and teams hold that as their guiding principle? Then maybe they could explore questions like:

  • How can I learn to skillfully speak up when I disagree with a colleague?
  • What do I have to learn about how to genuinely inquire into someone else’s perspective, especially when it’s different from mine?
  • How can I tell my truth in a way that furthers the collective learning of the team?
  • What happens when I begin to actively practice appreciation?

I certainly don’t disagree with the idea that a positive environment matters to team performance, nor with the notion that how we talk to one another makes a difference. I do think, however, that building a high performing team, and sustaining it over time, is not as simple as emphasizing the positive. As a leader, ask yourself: do you want people to be positive, or do you want them to be real?

What about you? What do you think about the research on the ratio of positive to negative interactions on teams? What happens when you focus on learning and truth-telling in your team environment? Please share your comments below!

Photo courtesy of Peter Stevens, Flickr Creative Commons

4 Responses to What’s More Critical To Team Development – Being Positive, or Being Real?

  1. Kim says:

    I loved this article and I think it comes down to something beyond positivity or negativity. It’s when teams or couple for that matter share a genuine respect and high regard for each other, they are likely to share their vulnerability and actually care about hearing the other side. The positive comments or regard flow from this fundamental place and it’s rooted in trust and authenticity. If I went around telling people positive comments I didn’t mean, then one of two things would happen, it either wouldn’t have the affect or over time, I might actually start to embody these statements.

    • Karen says:

      Thanks for your comments, Kim! I agree with you about the importance of respect and high regard, and that positive comments and appreciation naturally flow from this place. It seems to me to be a question of getting clear about what’s the cart and what’s the horse. I’ve worked with many teams where respect and high regard were missing, and my experience has been that when people are able to get real with each other, rather than simply positive, they slowly begin to build mutual respect, and then naturally begin to feel more positive toward each other.

  2. Patti says:

    Karen,
    Thanks for going deep and getting us past the simple positive / negative binary. I appreciate your focus on “truth-telling” and I laughed with recognition when you asked the question “If a team maintains a very positive atmosphere but doesn’t achieve a balance of inquiry and advocacy, would they still perform at high levels?”

    I’ve been on teams that strained to keep all interactions positive at the expense of inquiry and hard discussions. Ultimately, it was also at the expense of the performance and maturity of the organization.

    Now there’s just the small matter of practicing non-reactivity in the midst of team conflict! An ongoing challenge, but one your article makes clear is well worth the effort.

    • Karen says:

      Thanks, Patti! I appreciate you describing your experience of teams that strain to keep everything positive. I guess that’s my fear of having the sole emphasis be on how positive (or not) team members are being with each other – that in focusing there, we often sidestep the truth and so don’t have the hard conversations that can lead to greater team/organizational (not to mention personal) maturity. And it is an ongoing challenge, no question about that!