What is the best praise-to-criticism-ratio?

von Marion Ehmann

The other day I was talking with a group of lawyers about the importance of working with feedback in their organisation. One of them asked me an interesting question: He wondered whether I was promoting a “soft” or a “hard” style, i.e. positive feedback or negative feedback. I replied that in my view it´s not about being perceived as soft or hard, but that the effectiveness of feedback is key. I want to achieve something with my feedback (helping someone develop or making my own working life easier) and I choose the kind of feedback – and the way I give it – depending on what would be most effective in the situation at hand. Read more on this here. But what if we look not at a single situation, but at a relationship or a bundle of relationships, i.e. within a work team or between boss and staff? Here it is important to know that our brain is hard-wired to react much more strongly to negative experiences than to positive ones. Our brain evolved like that and this has helped our species to survive: The fear our ancestors felt when meeting a predator was much more important for their survival than the joy they felt when finding food. Their risk in the former situation was being eaten on the spot, while in the latter case the risk was going to sleep hungry and waking up to another day of searching for food. These ancient mechanisms in our brain also apply to the social fear of being criticised and to the social joy of being praised. And because all humans react so much stronger to criticism than to praise, we have to balance our negative feedback with a greater amount of positive feedback. Which leads us to the next question: What is the ideal ratio between positive and negative feedback? Researchers have looked into this: In the 1970s, the now world-famous mathematician and psychologist John Gottman started long-term studies of the interactions in married couples ...

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