What’s Your Positive to Negative Reinforcement Ratio?

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Many years ago I read an interview with legendary NBA coach Phil Jackson that greatly impacted my thinking when it comes to motiving a team – whether that be an athletic team or a business team. (For those who aren’t familiar with Jackson, he coached the Chicago Bulls and the Los Angeles Lakers to a combined 11 national titles – more than any other NBA coach – so he knows a thing or two about motivating at team).

In the article, Jackson said he tried to tell players five things they were doing right for every negative or critical piece of feedback he gave them. Recently I’ve read excerpts from several research studies that support Jackson’s approach.

I don’t know if the research was available at the time Jackson gave the interview and if it was I don’t know if he had read it, but today there is ample support for his method.

One research study found that our brains are wired in a way that makes negative feedback more “sticky”. Critical feedback tends to have a greater impact and stay with us longer than positive feedback. It seems that when it comes to positive feedback our brains have non-stick coating.

Another recent study found the factor that made the greatest difference between the most and least successful leadership teams was the ratio of positive comments to negative comments. The average ratio for the highest-performing teams was 5.6 positive comments for every negative one. The average for the lowest-performing teams was almost three negative comments for every positive one.

How Can You Shift Your Reinforcement Ratio?

Jackson’s results and the research alike point to a need to provide significantly more positive than negative reinforcement. So how can you begin to shift your reinforcement ratio?

Start With Awareness

First, begin paying attention to how frequently you give positive feedback as compared to negative feedback to your staff (as well as to your kids, spouse and friends). Track it for a day or a week. You may want to ask someone you trust and who spends a significant amount of time with you to help make you aware of your feedback patterns.

Look For Opportunities to Provide Positive Feedback

There are two ways to adjust the ratio. One is to increase the amount of positive feedback you provide. The second is to decrease the negative or critical feedback you hand out. Start with looking for opportunities to increase positive feedback. For multiple reasons it is likely to be easier to do – most of us are missing a lot of prime opportunities – and you will also begin to see the impact very quickly. As you begin to see results from providing positive reinforcement it will be easier to let go of the “need” to focus on what someone is not doing well.

For a week – or even a month – pick a handful of people and really focus on all of the things they are doing well. Identify those things they do that make your life easier, that contribute to the overall success of the team (or family), and that you really appreciate. Make a list if you need to. Then tell them what they are doing well and the impact it is having on you, the team and the business. The more immediate the feedback the better.

Many business owners I work with tell me this feels a little uncomfortable to them at first. It feels a little uncomfortable when you change your grip on the golf club too. But if you stick with it your results will likely improve.

Begin to Reduce the Negative Feedback

Once you are comfortable telling staff (or your kids) what they are doing well, it’s time to begin to reduce the negative or critical feedback. Some reduction will come naturally as you see performance improve as a result of increased positive reinforcement. There will still be those behaviors though that require a correction.

Here are three questions you can ask yourself prior to telling a staff member (or your spouse) something they need to stop doing or pointing out an area where they need to improve:

  • Is the behavior having a significant and negative impact on the functioning of the team or on results?
  • If the behavior improves or changes do you anticipate that it will have a significant positive impact on the functioning of the team or on results?
  • If the behavior improves or changes will it help the person realize one or more of their personal goals?

If the answer to all of these questions is “no” consider whether there is really any benefit in providing the critical feedback.

Whether positive or negative, don’t wait until it’s time for a formal performance evaluation to provide feedback. Performance evaluations are important. However, taking advantage of those opportunities to provide immediate feedback in the moment is even more important when it comes to effectively motivating your team.

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