The Ideal Praise to Criticism Ratio at Work? 5:1

by Scott Crabtree

I am delighted to introduce a new guest blogger to you today. I recently had the pleasure of corresponding with Dr. Barrie Hopson, author of 40 books including Live Happier The Ultimate Life Skill.

More about Barrie below, but I want to get you to his great post quickly. He contributed on one of my favorite topics–research suggesting an ideal ratio of positive to negative comments at work may be around 5:1. Over to Barrie:

We know from the research into successful relationships – especially intimate ones – that the most satisfying relationships consist of people giving at least 5 positive comments to 1 negative one. So fascinating to see some research checking out this idea in the work place.

The research, by Emily Heaphy and Marcial Losada, examined the effectiveness of 60 strategic-business-unit leadership teams at a large information-processing company. “Effectiveness” was measured according to financial performance, customer satisfaction ratings, and 360-degree 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 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, at 0.36 to 1, was almost three negative comments for every positive one.

So is negative feedback always a bad thing? Not according to Jack Senger and Joseph Folkman in a recent blog for Harvard Business Review.
Their research suggests that sometimes a little negative feedback apparently goes a long way. 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.

“And third, our own research shows, it helps leaders overcome serious weaknesses. The key word here is serious. Our firm provides 360-degree feedback to leaders. We have observed among the 50,000 or so leaders we have in our database that those who’ve received the most negative comments were the ones who, in absolute terms, improved the most.”

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So how does this square up with the pluses of focusing on people’s strengths? Their answer:

“Negative feedback is important when we’re heading over a cliff to warn us that we’d really better stop doing something horrible or start doing something we’re not doing right away. But even the most well-intentioned criticism can rupture relationships and undermine self-confidence and initiative. It can change behavior, 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 vigor, determination, and creativity. Perhaps that’s why we have found with the vast majority of the leaders in our database, who have no outstanding weaknesses, that positive feedback is what motivates them to continue improvement. In fact, for those in our database who started above average already (but are still below the 80th percentile), positive feedback works like negative feedback did for the bottom group. Focusing on their strengths enabled 62% 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 organization of making average leaders into good ones is far greater, because it puts them on the road to becoming the exceptional leaders that every organization desperately needs.”

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So there you have it. 5:1 in all aspects of your life if you truly want to live happier at home, at work and in your community.

We explore this in some depth in our latest book: Live Happier The Ultimate Life Skill and on our website.

Dr Barrie Hopson is the author of 40 books and his latest, written with Mike Scally, is Live Happier The Ultimate Life Skill. He has devoted his life through his research, writing and consulting, to helping people become architects of their own future. Read more about Barrie and his work on

What is your ratio of positive to negative comments at work? How is that affecting your morale and creativity? Please let us know by commenting.