I thought I would share an article published in the “Harvard Business Review” that discusses how effective groups work in a business. I know you are probably saying what does this have to do with counseling? Their findings echo the 5:1 positivity to negativity ratio that Mike DeMoss uses at Family Christian Counseling Center during marriage therapy as discovered by Dr. John Gottman. So, what can business teams learn from successful couples?
The main question that was being studied was: Which is more effective in improving team performance: using positive feedback to let people know when they’re doing well, or offering constructive comments to help them when they’re off track? The answer is that both are important. But the real question is — in what proportion?
The study was conducted by Emily Heaphy and Marcial Losada, it examined the effectiveness of leadership teams at a large information-processing company. “Effectiveness” was measured according to financial performance, customer satisfaction ratings, and feedback ratings of the team members. The factor that made 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, we should point out, could go as far as sarcastic or disparaging remarks.) The average ratio for the highest-performing teams was 5.6 (that is, nearly six 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 was almost three negative comments for every positive one.
Negative feedback certainly guards against complacency but those benefits come with serious costs or the amount of negative feedback that leads to high performance would be higher. Negative feedback is important when we’re heading over a cliff to tell us that we’d really better stop or start doing something we’re not doing right away. It can change behavior, but it seldom causes 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 determination and creativity.
In work and life, both negative and positive feedback have their place and their time. If some inappropriate behavior needs to be stopped, or if someone is failing to do something they should be doing, that’s a good time for negative feedback. And “the devils advocate” positions are useful in leadership team discussions, especially when it seems only one side of the argument has been heard. But the key even here is to keep the opposing viewpoint rational, objective, and calm — and above all not to engage in any personal attack.
The overall takeaway from the study was that all leaders should be aware of the ratio of positive and negative comments made by their colleagues in leadership team meetings, and endeavor to move the proportion closer to the ideal of 5 to 1. If you would like to read more about this 5 to 1 ratio in relation to marriage counseling at the Center please click on the link below.