Wednesday, September 09, 2015

The magic ratio of 5:1

Those of us involved in sports coaching are often told that the most effective mix of positive reinforcement to negative comments is 5:1.  I think this ratio might derive from research in the 1970's by Robert and Evelyn Kirkhart.*  They found that children in classrooms thrived when the ratio of feedback was 5 parts positive feedback to 1 part constructive feedback. In contrast, children sunk into despair if the ratio fell down to 2:1 or 1:1.

Not just any praise worked.  It was more effective if praise was truthful and related in real time to a specific event. It also had to be sincere and credible to have an impact.

I'm told, too, that a video analysis of the practice sessions run by John Wooden, arguably the greatest coach of all time, showed that 87% of his comments were positive reinforcement. Hmm, about a 5:1 ratio.

By the way--and maybe (or maybe not) a bit off our topic today--it was John Guttman in the 1990s who extended the research to married couples, showing that marriages were considerably more stable if there were five times as many positive feelings and interactions between husband and wife as there were negative. Guttman termed this the "magic ratio."

By contrast, I know of many leaders who intentionally run their companies as "low praise zones."  When I was in the state government, one of my colleagues did so for his agency.  He berated people when they made errors (sometimes calling them late at night) and would seldom, if ever, give them praise for a job well done. Nonetheless, many of his managers adored him, were loyal to him, and did every thing possible to make him satisfied. The agency, by the way, was successful in its mission in many respects.

It appeared to me that these managers were engaged in a relationship pattern equivalent to that of a codependent abused spouse.  I've since seen it in other settings.

In the hospital world, for example, I've seen a chief of surgery who behaved in a similar fashion to my government colleague.  Nary a kind word would come out of his mouth.  He ruled with fear, anger, and disdain. And yet his underlings--whether attending physicians or residents--would suck it up and take it, almost as a badge of honor.  They remained intensely loyal to him.  The surgery department, by the way, was quite good.

In the music world, I've seen a conductor of the same ilk.  Sarcasm and mean-spirited gossip were his weapons of choice.  People who were the conductor's favorites on one day would discover that, on another, they were in the dog house. And yet, as above, the members of the ensemble were remarkably loyal.  The music production of this group, by the way, was excellent.

I'd like to say that the 5:1 ratio is the way to go to produce a team of engaged and creative individuals best suited to carry out the mission of an organization.  It troubles me to think that the Commander Queeg approach I've just summarized might work as well.  All I know is that it would make me extremely uncomfortable to behave in such a way, and so I've tended to attract managers who prefer my approach and who have accomplished great things in places I've led.

If you are a leader in an organization, where do you stand on the spectrum of 5:1 versus 1:5?
* Kirkhart, Robert; Kirkhart, Evelyn (1972). "The Bruised Self: Mending in the Early Years". In Yamamoto, Kaoru. The Child and His Image: Self Concept in the Early Years. New York: Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 0-395-12571-5.


Barry Carol said...

I wonder what generally happens to the performance of an organization when a leader who rules by fear and intimidation yet achieves success and commands loyalty from subordinates is succeeded by a new leader who practices the positive reinforcement 5:1 approach.

I’ve always said there are two main things that I want and expect from a leader / manager / boss. Those are (1) sufficient competence to be worthy of my respect and (2) fair treatment which includes constructive criticism hopefully delivered privately.

MA RN said...

While the leaders who led with negativity had followers who adored them, what I think they often do not support are the creative and critical thinkers. The type of leadership you describe thrives on the status quo. They may have devoted followers, but when change is needed, are there leaders there to take up the cause and make changes?

Anonymous said...

So what happens if you have a leader/boss who generally doesn't give any feedback and is usually so consumed with meetings that staff don't see him/her on a regular basis. You assume no news is good news, that you're doing fine because you don't hear anything bad but it's a bit unsettling. This is especially difficult for new employees who don't have much experience and are left to figure out it on their own. How should the leader be approached in this situation?

Anonymous said...

I have a local hospital group/monopoly who responds to any data, facts, research I put in the medical record that they can rebut. They don't respond where they know they got it wrong.

On top of that, they NEVER acknowledge kudos. I nominated at least one of the doctors who has privileges at that hospital for a national award. Neither the immediate office supervisor, or the risk management and the board (who got a copy) acknowledged it.

I also made a statement to the same administration how can I put a kudo to someone who IS going to recognize a job well done with respect? They said fill out a survey. I said no way. Someone like this deserves to get more recognition from the people who make their $$$$$ off that person (at increasing rates). The least they can do is take their time to thank them.

Not one word from them. Who want to work for that sort of management? I'm here to tell you not all of us will defend someone acting like what you are talking about.

Richard said...

Paul - thank you for this wonderful reminder. Where do I stand? A firm - "hell yes!" and it's not only related back to coaching or being coached. It spans industries, countries, roles, levels, and functions.

For me, it goes back to sitting in the kitchen of my grandma's house in South Devon, England and hearing her words, "you'll always get further in life with a little sweet than you will with a little sour..."

The 5:1 rule works and is valid - no scientific research/studies/projects required... praise people, find the good in them, thank folks, love them, and celebrate their accomplishments. Deal with those not meeting theirs and yours expectations in an open, transparent, clear way and then get back to the praise, thanks, celebration and love!

Love what you do and the people you do it with.