In the early 1990s, psychologist John Gottman wrote a book based on years of research that definitively answered an elusive question:
What is the number one behavioral predictor of a successful marriage?
The answer: positive feedback. Apparently, the couples that stay together tend to deliver five positive messages for every negative one.
In the years since his revolutionary finding, Gottman’s study has been followed by countless others on the effects of praise and positive affirmation in various settings—at the gym, at home with kids, in schools. They all seek to solve the same puzzle that has managers and team leaders everywhere on the edges of their seats:
How often should I praise employees?
And then there are the other nagging questions that tend to accompany this one:
When is it beneficial to criticize, and how can you make it constructive?
What’s the perfect praise-to-criticism ratio for creating happy, productive teams?
While some criticism can be necessary at times, recent research indicates it’s the psychology of positive feedback that most influences employee satisfaction and engagement.
The Power of Positive Feedback
In one Gallup poll, researchers discovered that 61% of employees who hear about their strengths from supervisors are actively engaged at work. Among employees whose supervisors focus on weaknesses, that number goes down to 45%. Faring worst were the employees who felt ignored altogether—only 2% of them were engaged.
“Employees who are ignored feel like they don’t matter,” wrote the report’s authors. “They want to be part of something greater than themselves, and they want to know how they contribute to that something. They want to be heard, and above all, they do not want to be ignored.”
Similarly, the results of another popular study show that the ratio of positive comments to negative ones is a key indicator of team success. The highest-performing teams averaged 5.6 positive comments for every negative one, while the lowest-performing had almost three negative comments for each positive one.
Putting this past research to the test, leadership development consultants Jack Zenger and Joseph dug into their own database of 50,000 leaders. After some number-crunching, they reported an interesting trend:
Among the employees who were already performing above average, more than 60% still managed to improve significantly after hearing about their strengths.
“Only positive feedback can motivate people to continue doing what they’re doing well, and do it with more vigor, determination, and creativity,” Zenger and Folkman say. “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.”
Plus, people like getting feedback—at least, the kinds of employees who will eventually step up to take on important leadership positions. When behavioral statistician Joseph Folkman looked through more than a decade of research, he discovered that leaders who ask for feedback are substantially more effective than leaders who don’t.
What the Numbers Mean for Managers
Should you avoid giving constructive criticism at all costs? Certainly not. However, tapping into the power of positive feedback can open the doors to a culture of camaraderie and make day-to-day achievements more visible and recognized.
Keep in mind that the affirmations themselves don’t need to be earth-shattering to have an impact. Many of the positive comments analyzed for research include statements such as “I agree with that” and “That’s a terrific idea.”
In other words, a little goes a long way. Something as simple as a high five or quick “thank-you” can be enough to boost moods and motivations.
Now that you’re up to speed on the power of positive feedback, who are you going to high-five first?