Updated: Jan 27, 2022
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? Okay… I admit that this is a little bit of a trick question.
Certainly, constructive criticism can prevent us from making mistakes that often cost us valuable time, energy and money. But even the most well-intentioned comments can undermine self-confidence and team dynamics. Constructive criticism may change the immediate situation, but without positive feedback, it won’t result in long-term improvement.
Positive feedback is what motivates us to continuous growth and improvement with determination and enthusiasm.
Studies indicate that one factor makes the greatest difference between the most and least successful teams. And that is the ratio of positive comments to negative or critical comments that the participants made to one another. Researchers examined the effectiveness of 60 strategic-business-unit leadership teams at a large information-processing company by analyzing their positive and negative speech acts.
“Effectiveness” was measured according to financial performance, customer satisfaction ratings, and feedback ratings of the team members. A speech act was coded as “positive” if the person speaking showed support or encouragement, and it was coded as “negative” if the person speaking showed disapproval, sarcasm, or criticism.
They found that the average ratio for the highest-performing teams was nearly six positive comments for every negative one. The medium-performance teams averaged 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.
While a few words of praise is always good to hear, a critique from a boss or colleague – even constructive criticism – imprints on the brain more quickly, lingers longer and has a much greater impact than a positive comment.
It’s an ancestral hand-me-down. A few million years ago, the ability to dodge danger was a matter of life or death. Our ancestors weren’t blissfully basking in the beauty of the great outdoors. It was far more important for them to be on the lookout for saber-tooth tigers and killer crocodiles. Over time, we’ve evolved, but we’ve retained that hypersensitivity to threats – physical and psychological.
Anthropologist and author, Judith Glaser, studied the science of conversations and coined the term Conversational Intelligence. According to Glaser, the magic of Conversational Intelligence is knowing how our brains react when we communicate with others. Conversations are more than merely relaying information. When people engage in conversation with intention, they enhance relationships and organizational culture in the way they nurture cooperation, collaboration and trust.
“Conversations are not what we think they are. We’ve grown up thinking they are about talking, sharing, information, telling people what to do, or telling others what’s on our minds. We are now learning, through neurological and cognitive research, that a “conversation” goes deeper and is more robust than simply relaying information.” - Judith Glaser
Negative feelings like rejection, fear, minimization, and criticism engage the fear/threat center and the amygdala orders up a blast of cortisol which creates an immediate "shut down" of our prefrontal cortex to allocate all of our neural resources to deal with the threat. The longer we stress over something, the greater the impact. This effect can last longer than 24 hours which magnifies the experience and imprints it into memory.
When the survival brain takes over, we operate out of the part of the primitive brain called the amygdala. This part is hardwired with the well- developed instincts of fight, flight, or freeze. When we feel threatened, the amygdala activates the immediate impulses that ensure we survive. The brain locks down and we are no longer open to influence.
Positive conversations generate a chemical reaction, too. When we feel like we’re contributing members of a team, that what we do is important, that we are valued and feel a sense of trust, the brain generates the neurotransmitter oxytocin - the chemical that elevates our ability to communicate, collaborate, and connect with others. Unlike cortisol, oxytocin activates neural activity in the prefrontal cortex. The key is understanding that the uplifting effects of the oxytocin boost wear off quicker than the arresting impact of cortisol, making the experience of more frequent positive interactions important for continuous motivation.
The neurochemistry of conversations has huge implications in the success or failure of team dynamics. In one large-scale survey, managers were asked how often they engaged in conversational behaviors that either resulted in the release of cortisol or oxytocin. The CreatingWE Institute partnered with Qualtrics, the world’s largest online survey software company, to analyze the frequency of negative (cortisol-producing) versus positive (oxytocin-producing) interactions in the workplace. They asked managers how often they engaged in several behaviors — some positive, and others negative — on a scale of 0 through 5, in which 0 was “never” and 5 was “always.”
The results were mixed. While most people indicated that they do engage in positive oxytocin-producing behaviors, all of the manager surveyed admitted to engaging in all five of the behaviors that generate cortisol. These conflicting behaviors create a sense of uncertainty – and that uncertainty is a cortisol-producing stressor in and of itself. The brain hates uncertainty!
The concept of “conversational intelligence” is important for all of us but essential for leaders. Conversations that increase cortisol levels reduce our ability to think clearly and rationally. In contrast, behaviors that generate oxytocin stimulate activity in the prefrontal cortex and facilitate belonging, engagement, and collaboration.
This research echoes other analyses of the correlation of positive and negative comments to marriage and divorce. Studies show that the optimal ratio of positive to negative comments is amazingly similar—five positive comments for every negative one. For those who ended up divorced, the ratio was something like three positive comments for every four negative ones.
Clearly we’d never get better at anything without critical feedback. But a wealth of research suggests that when positive interactions outweigh the negative ones, the brain works better in a number of ways. Here are three simple ways to boost your CQ and achieve a 3 to 1 ratio in your organization:
1. Be on the lookout for praise-worthy behavior. When you see something, say something. Spontaneous praise can deliver an incredible boost of good neurotransmitters.
2. Be specific and sincere. “I appreciate your leadership today. The way you did (xyz) made a big difference to the team and our customers. Thank you.”
3. Make it routine. Commit to write 3 thank-you notes each week on a given day. Put it in your calendar as a reminder, and treat it as you would any other important task on your list of things to do.