Praise or criticism? Which has the most power to change behaviour?

Which is more effective in improving individual or team performance: using positive feedback to let people know when they’re doing well, or offering constructive but critical comments to help them when they’re off track?

Research* published in Kim Cameron’s book, Positive Leadership suggests that this is a trick question. The answer, as one might intuitively expect, is that both are important.

The factor that makes the greatest difference between the most and least successful people at home and at work appears to be the ratio of positive comments “I agree with that,” for instance, or “that’s a terrific idea”, or “I love it when you smile”, to negative comments like “I don’t agree with you” “we shouldn’t even consider doing that” “that colour looks terrible on you”, “that report is full of mistakes”, “I’m sick of clearing up your mess”.

The highest-performing teams made only one negative comment to six positive ones, while the poorest performing teams made three negative comments to every positive one.

That is not to say all criticism is bad. In fact, it is an essential part of the mix. Why is that? First, because of its ability to grab someone’s attention. Think of it as a whack on the side of the head. Second, certainly, negative feedback guards against complacency and ‘groupthink’.

Harvard Business Review (HBR) has conducted its own research on praise and criticism. It found that constructive criticism could help leaders overcome serious weaknesses.

The key word here is serious. HBR provides 360-degree feedback to leaders. They have observed among the 50,000 or so leaders in their database that those who’ve received the most negative comments were the ones who, in absolute terms, improved the most.

Specifically, their aggregate data showed that three-quarters of those receiving the lowest leadership effectiveness scores – and who made an effort to improve – rose on average 33 percentile points in their rankings after a year. That is, they moved from the 23rd percentile (the middle of the worst) to the 56th percentile (or square in the middle of the pack).

It seems the people who get the most negative feedback have the most room to grow. It’s far harder for someone at the 90th percentile already to improve so much.

But clearly those benefits potentially come with serious costs or the amount of negative feedback that leads to high performance would be higher.

Negative feedback is important when the organisation is heading over a cliff, to warn an employee that they’d better stop doing something horrible or start doing something better right away. But even the most well-intentioned and necessary criticism can rupture relationships and undermine self-confidence and initiative.

It can change behaviour, certainly, but it doesn’t cause people to put forth their best efforts.

Only positive feedback can motivate people to continue doing what they’re doing well, and do it with more vigour, determination, and creativity.

Perhaps that’s why HBR has found with the vast majority of the leaders in their database, who have no outstanding weaknesses, that positive feedback is what motivates them to continue improvement.

In fact, for those in the database who start out above average already (but are still below the 80th percentile), positive feedback works like negative feedback does for the bottom group. Focusing on their strengths enabled 62 per cent of this group to improve a full 24 percentage points (to move from the 55th to the 79th percentile).

The absolute gains are not as great as they are for the most-at-risk leaders, since they started so much further ahead. But the benefits to the organisation of making average leaders into good ones is far greater, because it puts them on the road to becoming the exceptional leaders that every organisation desperately needs.

As an interesting aside, it is noteworthy that this research is echoed in an uncanny way by John Gottman’s analysis of wedded couples’ likelihood of getting divorced or remaining married.

Once again, the single biggest determinant is the ratio of positive to negative comments the partners make to one another. And the optimal ratio is amazingly similar – five positive comments for every negative one.

For those who ended up divorced, Gottman found the ratio was 0.77 to 1 – or something like three positive comments for every four negative ones.

Clearly in work and life, both negative and positive feedback have their place and their time. If some inappropriate behaviour needs to be stopped, or if someone is failing to do something they should be doing, that’s a good time for negative feedback.

The key is to keep the opposing viewpoint rational, objective, and calm – and above all not to engage in any personal attack (under the disingenuous guise of being “constructive”).

So, lead by example – both at home and at work – and endeavour to move the proportion closer to the ideal of about 6 to 1 by your own example.

*The Role of Positivity and Connectivity in the Performance of Business Teams: A Nonlinear Dynamics Model, published by American Behavioural Scientist.