A couple of weeks ago I found myself in the middle of a heated debate with a small
group of women leaders at a networking reception. No, the debate wasn’t about who
should play Christian in the upcoming 50 Shades of Grey movie (although the subject was touched on). Rather, the discussion focused around the best way to motivate teams through feedback. Half the party was all about positive reinforcement while the rest swore up and down that negative reinforcement got the best results. The experience left me reflecting on my own feedback style, asking: Do teams produce better results and learn more as a result of positive reinforcement, or negative? Is there a good balance of both?

When I first started managing a team, giving feedback was one of the toughest lessons to learn. By nature, I want people to thrive and do their best work, but without actually having to tell them how. It took some “tough-love” experiences (and a business coach) to help me understand that my ability to provide both positive and negative feedback has a direct impact on both individual and team performance.

As a manager, your responsibility is to establish a path for performance growth and improvement for each member of your team. That requires assessing strengths,
identifying opportunities for growth, setting appropriate benchmarks, and measuring progress. If you’re focusing too much on positive or negative feedback, you’re missing half the equation—and half the potential.

Why Are Both Types of Feedback Important?

If you had asked me this question three years ago, I would have been a major cheerleader for positive feedback. Shower people with compliments, build them up and let them soar, right? Not so much. The reality was far less idealistic. For one, I was focusing on positive feedback because that was an easier, more comfortable, conflict-free experience for both of us. Futhermore, I found that after I pumped people up with praise, they’d miss the mark, leaving me frustrated and disappointed. Why didn’t he/she meet my expectations? I’ll tell you why: I didn’t set them up for success. I failed to clearly communicate my expectations, provide constructive feedback on areas for improvement, and co-create a plan for success. I let them fly blindly, and as a result, we all failed.

Providing negative feedback is an essential tool for growth and development. Performance will not improve if you don’t tell people they’re missing the mark. Some of the key ways negative feedback improves performance are by:

  • Grabbing attention and guarding against complacency
  • Clearly outlining where an individual or team is falling short of the mark
  • Defining performance expectations and benchmarks

Sometimes managers unconsciously adopt a “if it’s not broke don’t fix it” mentality, forgetting to recognize what works effectively. This is a huge missed opportunity, because positive feedback can stimulate employee performance by:

  • Motivating continued improvement
  • Promoting creativity, innovation and enthusiasm
  • Articulating a path to success and providing a model employees can recognize and replicate in other areas of their work

The Right Feedback Ratio

The key is to find the right balance of positive and negative feedback that will fuel growth, motivate and encourage employees to strive for maximum performance. What’s the breakdown? According to research conducted by academic Emily Heaphy and consultant Marcial Losada, the factor that makes the greatest difference between the most and least successful teams is the ratio of positive to negative comments.

The average ratio for high performing teams was six positive comments for every
negative one. For low performing teams, the average was nearly half of that—three positive comments for everyone negative one. What does that tell us? A little negative feedback goes a long way, and should be paired with positive feedback for the best results.

A Symbiotic Relationship

As a manger, the secret to success is to understand there’s a symbiotic relationship between positive and negative feedback—both are essential to optimize performance. Everyone has areas for improvement and you’re not doing any favors by avoiding problem areas. Simultaneously, positive feedback is fuel that keeps people motivated and should not be left out of the feedback loop. Identifying and applying the right praise-to-criticism for your team will empower your people to thrive!

Do you react better to positive reinforcement or negative reinforcement? Tell us in the comments!

Ask Trae Vassallo, General Partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, what her best form of motivation is!