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:
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:
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:
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