A few weeks back, I got caught up in a debate with some female leaders at a networking function. And no, it wasn’t about who should play Christian in the film adaptation of 50 Shades of Grey (although that was mentioned). The discussion centered around how to best motivate teams through feedback–whether positivity or negativity produced better results. The experience made me think about my feedback style and whether teams produce better results when they receive positive or negative reinforcement. Is it beneficial to have a mix of both?

Feedback was one of the first and hardest lessons I had to learn when taking on a management role. Initially, I only wanted my team to do well without having to tell them what they were doing wrong. Unfortunately, it took some “tough-love” experiences (and hiring a business coach) for me to realize that both positive and negative feedback is necessary in order to achieve successful individual and team performance.

If you want your team to succeed, it is important as your manager to create a plan for each individual’s performance growth. This encompasses finding out what they’re good at (their strengths), where they can improve (opportunities for growth), setting standards for them to reach (appropriate benchmarks), and seeing if they are meeting those goals (measuring progress). Some managers might focus too much on either positive or negative feedback, but it is essential to remember that both pieces are required in order to achieve the most 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 the positive feedback. Showering people with compliments seemed like the build them up and let them soar approach, 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, and conflict-free experience for both of us. I often felt disappointed and frustrated when my employees didn’t meet my expectations, but I realized that it was because I had never set them up for success. I regularly provided Praise without clearcut Expectations or Feedback on how to improve, leading to a lot of unmet potentials and many missed opportunities. By setting better boundaries and communicating more effectively with co-workers, we can all achieve success.

Negative feedback is a key method of growth and development. You cannot expect performance to improve if you do not point out areas of improvement. Some ways negative feedback boosts performance are:

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

Managers often unknowingly take on the “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it” mentality and fail to identify what is working well. This missed opportunity can have large consequences because positive feedback from managers can actually improve 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

What’s the key to success? It’s finding the right balance of positive and negative feedback so your company grows, while still motivating and encouraging employees. Without the correct ratio, teams tend to be less successful. But what is this magical number? After research done by academic Emily Heaphy and consultant Marcial Losada, they found that it takes a 3:1 ratio of positive comments to fuel growth in maximum performance for teams.

High-performing teams typically have a ratio of six positive comments to every negative one. Low-performing teams, on the other hand, only average three positive comments for every negative one. What can we glean from this information? That even a little bit of negative feedback can go a long way and should be paired with positive feedback for optimal results.

A Symbiotic Relationship

The key to being a successful manager is twofold: recognizing that there’s a give-and-take relationship between positive and negative feedback, and understanding that both are crucial for optimizing results. Everyone has areas they can work on, so you’re not doing anybody any favors by glossing over them. That said, it’s just as important to offer praise where it’s due—it’ll keep people motivated. By striking the right balance of criticism and compliments, you’ll empower your team to excel!

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!

Join Forces of Women Professionals

Stay empowered, inspired, and connected with a network of incredible women. Subscribe to our email updates today and be part of a vibrant community driving change together. Don’t miss out on exclusive content, events, and opportunities. Together, we’re more vital! Subscribe now!