Keep Your Culture Positive!

Which is more effective to improve team performance: positive feedback or constructive criticism? a positive culture or a negative one?

The answer: both.

The real question: in what proportion?

The answer to the proportion question, from new research by Michigan doctoral student Emily Heaphy and team productivity consultant Marcial Losada:

The ratio of positive-to-negative statements is directly correlated to “strikingly different results for each performance category” of teams:

  • The highest-performing teams expressed 6 positive comments for every negative one
  • Medium-performing teams expressed 2 positive comments for each negative one
  • Low-performing teams swung the other way, expressing almost 3 negative comments for every positive one
photo: two girls working together on a Mac
Positivity & Productivity

“…in order to predict team performance, one only has to know the ratio of positive to negative interactions…”, Heaphy and Losada concluded.

Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman gave it a giving-feedback spin in their Harvard Business Review blog post, but nonetheless correctly summarized:

“The factor that made the greatest difference between the most and least successful teams: the ratio of positive to negative comments that participants made to one another.”

Heaphy and Losada were studying leadership teams – 60 of them – and not development teams, but given they’re measuring the nature of human satisfaction and response, development teams can’t be far off.

Across 60 teams, they measured approving versus disapproving statements – not just feedback, but all expressions of support, encouragement or appreciation (e.g., “that’s a good idea”), versus sarcasm, cynicism, or disapproval (e.g., “that’s about the dumbest thing I ever heard”).

Their finding may apply to giving feedback, but its overall truth is about culture.

“Qualitative observations of the teams showed that high performance teams were characterized by an atmosphere of buoyancy that lasted during the whole meeting. By showing appreciation and encouragement to other members of the team, they created emotional spaces that were expansive and opened possibilities for action and creativity as shown in their strategic mission statements. In stark contrast, low performance teams operated in very restrictive emotional spaces created by lack of mutual support and enthusiasm, often in an atmosphere charged with distrust and cynicism.”

Heaphy and Losada noted validation of prior research by other teams that showed positivity opens opportunities for action while negativity closes them down. (Interestingly, they also noted prior research into married couplehood that correlated remarkably similar ratios of 5-to-1 positive-to-negative comments to stable marriages and negative ratios to divorce. “Gottman’s research on married couples has shown that the best predictor of stable marriages is the ratio of positive to negative interactions…. Where his “performance” variable was the sustainability and quality of a marital relationship, we found that this same ratio of positive to negative interactions is the critical differentiator between high-, medium-, and low-performing teams.”)

Negative comments must clearly be part of the mix. Pollyannaism – positivity alone – is no answer. It’s just that most of us don’t want to work in a culture that swings negative. What we all need to note is that the swing negative starts from a 6-to-1 positive-to-negative ratio!

Throughout our book, Managing the Unmanageable: Rules, Tools, and Insights for Managing Software People and Teams, we devote pages and pages to the value of praise, recognition and having fun with your teams – all key components to building a culture of positivity. “Say ‘thank you’ at least ten times every week,” we counsel. “Never pass up an opportunity.”

We just didn’t have the researchers to measure it. Until now.

Heaphy’s and Losada’s conclusion: “We need to have organizations with teams where the abundance of positivity, grounded in constructive negative feedback, can generate the state of realistic enthusiasm that can propel organizations to reach and uphold the heights of excellence.”


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