How Constructive is Your Criticism?

“Constructive criticism” becomes destructive criticism when it’s poorly delivered by a leader with a very low negativity/positivity ratio. My March blog on The Best Positivity/Negativity Ratio for Peak Performance discussed research on balancing positive to negative statements for optimum personal, team, and organization performance.

CNN recently featured an article on how leaders can most effectively deliver negative feedback. The article reported on the University of Michigan Business School’s study of team performance correlated to the frequency of praise and criticism:

“The best-performing teams used about six times as many positive comments for every negative one. It found that the worst performing teams, on average, used three negative comments for every positive one.”

A similar ratio of positive to negative comments has been found for marriages.

Highly effective leaders don’t pretend all is positive and rosy while ignoring difficult issues (the moose-on-the-table). Corrective feedback that addresses negative behaviors keeps individuals and teams on their pathways to peak performance. Most often the issue is not what is said but how feedback is delivered. It’s been said that 90% of the friction in relationships is caused by the wrong tone of voice.

Can You Cope with Criticism at Work? provides this advice:

  • Maintain a ratio of up to six times more positive comments, recognition, and appreciation than negative or corrective feedback.
  • Don’t abruptly deliver negative feedback without setting the context.
  • Never criticize or correct anyone in front of others.
  • Build a reflective and feedback rich workplace where people know how they’re doing.
  • Ensure praise is specific and not hollow words like “good job” or “well done.”
  • Never deliver emotionally charged negative feedback such as when either party is angry.
  • Effective leaders continually seek feedback about the effectiveness of their behaviors.
  • Leaders must pay attention to what example he or she sets with their own defensiveness or openness to feedback.

All this growing research on maintaining positive and strengths-based relationships sheds new light on the old notion of “relationship bank accounts.” We need to put up to six times more deposits in our relationship bank account to cover just one withdrawal. If we allow these accounts to run big deficits we’ll end up with expensive overdraft charges and likely bankrupt the relationship.