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What Works Better: Positive Reinforcement or Negative Reinforcement?

Career Advice |

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!

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8 Comments

Thank you - what an insightful article!

One of the most dissatisfying experiences I've had at work was when negative feedback was given in a way that came across as personal, however unintentional it may have been. It immediately made the criticism un-constructive.

It is so important that word choice be considered when delivering negative feedback. Using the word ‘what’ versus ‘why’ is a good way to keep the criticism objective-related rather than coming off as personal. For example, “what obstacles prevented the deadline from being met” rather than “why did you miss the deadline".

3y

This is a great piece! I could not agree with you more when you argued, "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". This is so vital in order for people to grow and succeed. This is the basis for building people up.

3y
Anonymous

This is key to developing motivated and engaged teams and, yes, the ratio should always be lots more positive with a little negative presented in a constructive and helpful manner. One thing I would add is that giving NO feedback at all (something that happens all too often) is also harmful and will also lead to disengagement of team members. Thank you for opening up this conversation!

3y
Elana Gross

This is such a well written and important topic! Thank you for sharing your experience!

3y

Happy too! It takes time and effort to learn how to give great feedback - something we can all benefit from :-)

3y

This is such an interesting topic.
Personally, I received some seriously negative feedback from a vp at the company I work for. It really effected me because I felt (and still feel) like the critiques were about something I had no control over. The next week I found out a senior sales rep for our company wrote the vp an email explaining how valuable I am to the company and how they see a great deal of potential in me. The sales rep did not know about the critique and I can honestly say that the positive reinforcement was the thing that lifted my spirits and pushed me to continue working hard.
Although negative reinforcement makes me want to prove that person giving the critique wrong, I do believe it can help you grow as an individual. Positive reinforcement is needed to keep spirits up and show you that you aren't doing EVERYTHING wrong. You just need to improve on certain aspects.

3y

Margaret, I think you touch on the reality that we are all wired a little differently and what motivates a team as a whole as well as each individual that makes up a team is unique. It's important to understand what motivates us personal and what motivates the people we work with. It's also important to understand the difference between internal and external motivation to best connect with others and ourselves. Dan Pink's book "Drive" is a quick read and very enlightening.

3y

I couldn't agree with you more - constructive feedback is important for progress but is so much more powerful when paired with positive feedback to keep motivation/morale up! Thanks so much for sharing your experience.

3y
Megan Conley

Megan is the Founder and CEO of Social Tribe, a social engagment agency that connects brands to customers through social media. Since opening its doors in 2009, Social Tribe has had the privilege of serving clients such as Cisco Systems, SAP, SuccessFactors, UC Davis and many others. In her free time, Megan travels extensively through China and Brazil – observing social tribes around the world. Follow her on Twitter @megconley @socltribe