Are you the type of leader that loves to provide positive feedback? Or, are you the type who prefers to tell people what they did wrong? Long-standing research shows that the leaders who provide positive feedback more often than negative, at a 5:1 ratio, have teams that perform better, are more innovative, and generate more profit.
However, both positive and negative feedback is essential, and employees overwhelmingly believe they are not getting enough of either feedback. New research shows that when an organization has “positive energizers,” the organization improves its performance, innovation, team cohesion, and financial performance.
Let’s take these one at a time, beginning with feedback and a 5:1 ratio of favorable to unfavorable feedback.
According to research by Emily Heaphy and Marcial Losada, the ideal praise-to-criticism ratio is 5:1 and is the ratio in high-performing business teams. In medium-performing teams, the ratio was about 2:1, with teams sharing two positive comments for every negative comment. And in low-performing teams, the ratio stood in stark contrast: these teams shared nearly three times as many negative comments as positive ones. The performance of teams in this study was measured according to financial performance, customer satisfaction ratings, and 360-degree feedback ratings of the team members.
The specificity and quality of feedback matters. Positive feedback needs to be specific and timely. Negative feedback often runs the risk of endangering the relationship between the leader and team member. Research from Gartner shows, however, that this negative risk can be overcome when the leader coaches the employee on how to make improvements. Or, if the leader is not the ideal coach for the employee’s weakness, he or she provides an expert coach the employee on how to improve.
According to Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman, managers should not sidestep providing negative feedback on significant issues. A little negative feedback apparently goes a long way. It is an essential part of the feedback mix. Why is that? First, because of its ability to grab someone’s attention. Think of it as a whack on the side of the head. Second, certainly, negative feedback guards against complacency and groupthink. Third, it helps leaders overcome serious weaknesses. The key word here is serious.
The management consultancy of Zenger/Folkman provides 360-degree feedback to leaders. They have observed that, among the 50,000 leaders in their database, those who’ve received the most negative comments on serious weaknesses were the ones who, in absolute terms, who improved the most.
But, Zenger and Folkman’s research found that positive feedback is even more essential. Only positive feedback can motivate people to continue doing what they’re doing well and do it with more vigor, determination, and creativity. In fact, they report that for those in their database who started above average already (but are still below the 80th percentile), positive feedback worked like negative feedback did for the bottom group. Focusing on the strengths of the above-average leaders enabled 62 percent of this group to improve a full 24 percentage points (to move from the 55th to the 79th percentile).
The absolute gains are not as significant as they are for the most-at-risk leaders, since they started so much further ahead. But the benefits to the organization of making average leaders into good ones are far greater because this change puts them on the road to becoming the exceptional leaders that every organization desperately needs.
Incidentally, conclusions from the research in the groundbreaking 1984 leadership book, The Situational Leader by Paul Hersey, found the same effect. Hersey advises leaders to coach, support, and provide feedback to their employees based on their newness to or competence with a job task, motivation, and their own strengths and weaknesses. Novices and below-average performers are to be coached for improvement with much feedback. For high performers, leaders should give them constant praise, challenging assignments, and get out of their way!
Unfortunately, most employees report not getting enough praise or too little feedback of any kind.
According to new research from Officevibe, 63 percent of employees feel like they don’t get enough praise, and 72 percent of employees get praise less than once per week. Additionally, 32 percent of employees have to wait more than three months to get feedback from their manager.
Officevibe’s research shows that employees want feedback, both positive and negative. Consider this: 96 percent of employees said that receiving feedback regularly is a good thing, and 83 percent of employees really appreciate receiving feedback, regardless of whether it’s positive or negative.
The feedback of managers to team members is essential for organizational performance. What is even more powerful is when an organization has one or more positive energizers, especially after two years of trauma from Covid-19.
Research released in the Harvard Business Review in April 2022 shows positive energizers’ important impact on business performance. The researchers, Emma Seppälä and Kim Cameron describe the impact of physiological factors:
“Numerous studies run by our group and our colleagues show that positive energizers produce substantially higher levels of engagement, lower turnover, and enhanced feelings of well-being among employees. This is partly because at the cellular level of brain activity, cortical thickness is enhanced through exposure to relational energy, hormones such as oxytocin and dopamine are increased, and at the cellular level in the body, inflammation is reduced, and immunity to disease is enhanced. In organizations, superior shareholder returns occur, and in some of the author’s studies, outcomes exceeded industry averages in profitability and productivity by a factor of four or more.”
However, positive relational energy —the energy exchanged between people that helps uplift, enthuse, and renew them — is not the superficial demonstration of false positivity, like trying to think happy thoughts or turning a blind eye to the very real stresses and pressures overloaded employees are experiencing. Rather, it is the active demonstration of values.”
The authors report that when the leader is a positive energizer, the organization has greater:
- Innovation (the number-one attribute that CEOs look for across industries and countries)
- Financial performance, including productivity and quality
- Workplace cohesion
And when a leader is a positive energizer, employees have greater:
- Job satisfaction
- Relationships with family
How do positive energizers do this?
According to Emma Seppälä and Kim Cameron, there’s more to this than the need for employees to feel valued, respected, and engaged; we already know those qualities are important. When they get recognition, support, and encouragement, absenteeism is low, productivity and profitability are high, and quality and safety improve. But positive energizers catalyze all this and more.
“Positive relational energy then becomes reciprocal,” Seppälä and Cameron say. “An energizing approach to others acts as a continual energy-boosting mechanism, which, in turn, produces an abundance of energy in the whole network. Energizers reproduce themselves, building networks of positive energizers around them, and that heliotropic effect expands to attract still more.
“To paraphrase the proven leader Dolly Parton: If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more, you are a positive, energizing leader. Many studies on positive leadership demonstrate that leaders focused on contributing to others are substantially more effective than leaders focused on personal achievement and success. Their organizations and their employees excel.”
The leaders’ positive energy and feedback for their teams drive organizational performance. Unfortunately, too few employees receive feedback, and too few leaders drive positive energy.
Victor Assad is the CEO of Victor Assad Strategic Human Resources Consulting and managing partner of InnovationOne.. He works with companies to transform HR and recruiting, implement remote work, and develop extraordinary leaders, teams, and innovation cultures. He is the author of the highly acclaimed book, Hack Recruiting: the Best of Empirical Research, Method and Process, and Digitization. Subscribe to his weekly blogs at www.VictorHRConsultant.com.