Criticize me once, praise me five times.


Criticize Once, Praise Five Times

Can a fixed ratio of positive to negative moments lead to better relationships?

Jim Thomas

According to researcher John Gottman, a psychologist at the University of Washington, one ratio is a very accurate predictor of marital stability: When there are five times as many positive moments (for example, showing interest, asking questions and empathy) as there are negative moments (criticism, hostility and anger) occurring in the relationship, the marriage works. It certainly begs the question, how have I stayed married for such a long time?

A high-performance ratio?

The 5:1 ratio recently found its way into Amateur Athletic Union instructional materials, which claim that John Wooden, the legendary former coach of UCLA men's basketball, employed a five-to-one ratio of praise to scolding during practices.

Can this same ratio result in a more motivated, high-performing and loyal staff in your practice?

“Behavior and emotions are extremely contagious. What would happen if you were to begin making more supportive and appreciative comments, rather than being the one to point out the mistakes of others?” asked Jack Zenger in a recent issue of Forbes. His company, Zenger Folkman, a leadership consulting firm, studied high-performance management teams and found that, no, the ratio of positive to negative was not 5:1 — it was higher (5.6:1).

There are some issues in adopting the 5:1 approach. First and foremost, if I start doling out all that praise, will my staff think I've lost it? Such feelings aside, we often control whether the moment will be a “scolding” one (“thanks to you, Mrs. Smith now buys her contact lenses from a mail order company”) or a more positive one: “You provided great service to Mrs. Smith today, and we can make her experience even better by recommending she purchase contact lenses from us. Let me show you how.”

Beyond praise

In addition to direct communications, evaluate other factors that lead to positive moments, such as a bright, tastefully-decorated office. In keeping with OM's theme this month, consider the message you send with an investment in new diagnostic equipment, which can not only improve patient care and increase revenues, but also help the staff become more efficient and engaged in their work.

Finally, I'd wager there's a lot that goes on in our organizations that's positive — probably at a rate greater than 5:1 — that's perhaps taken for granted. What dividends can we realize by recognizing these moments and encouraging them to become contagious? OM