Is there a magic ratio of positivity to negativity?

Apparently there is, and it’s 5:1. That is some researchers are arguing that for every barbed remark, or true-word-spoken-in-jest you have to patch on five positive (and presumably sincere) comments for that relationship to be repaired.

It sounds simplistic (because it is) but there is some intriguing evidence converging from a range of sources to show that once the ratio of positive comments (particularly praise and appreciation) to negative comments drops below 4-5 to 1 then the work relationship suffers. Let’s have a look at this evidence.

1. Dr Donald Clifton

The father of ‘Strengths Psychology’, Dr Donald Clifton, worked with the survey company Gallup to interview 4 million workers on the topics of recognition and praise. They found that the number-one reason people leave their jobs was that they don’t feel appreciated. That perhaps isn’t surprising, what is astounding (at least for me) is that 65% of Americans received no recognition in the workplace last year.

This no doubt contributes to an estimated 22 million workers who are presently ‘actively disengaged’, or extremely negative in their workplace. To maintain your happy state after these two pieces of bad news I should now give you 10 positive points. Instead here’s 5. Gallup also found that individuals who begin to receive regular recognition and praise:

  • increase their individual productivity

  • get on better with their colleagues

  • have better safety records and fewer accidents on the job

  • are more likely to stay with the organisation longer

  • generate higher customer satisfaction scores

2. Dr Divorce: the work of John Gottman

If you’ve read Blink by Malcom Gladwell you may remember the unusual research of Dr John Gottman. He and his team watch a 15 minute conversation between a married couple and keep score of the number of the ‘positive and negative interactions. He can predict whether or not the couple will divorce with a truly staggering 94% accuracy. His method is simple – it’s whether or not they observe a ratio of positive to negative behaviours of less than 4:1.By now you might be wondering what exactly is a negative behavior – here is what Dr. Gottman calls ‘The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.’

They are:

Criticism: stating one’s complaints as a defect in one’s partner’s personality for eg “You always talk about yourself. You are so selfish.”

Contempt: statements that come from a relative position of superiority for eg “You’re an idiot.”

Defensiveness: self-protection in the form of righteous indignation or innocent victim-hood. For example ‘It’s not my fault that we’re always late; it’s your fault.’

Stonewalling: emotional withdrawal from interaction and not giving the speaker the usual nonverbal signals that the listener is “tracking” the speaker.

3. The positivity/negativity ratio in business teams

Then there is the work of Marcial Losada and Emily Heaphy who more recently have looked at the positivity and negativity ratio in a business setting. They observed teams carrying out tasks and again logged the number of disapprovals, sarcasms and cynicisms vs remarks that were supportive, encouraging or appreciative. They found that the ratio of positive to negative comments in the highest performing teams was 5.6, while in medium performing teams it was 1.9 and in the low performing teams, only a measly 0.4. That is, for every piece of support or encouragement, there were two disapproval or sarcastic statements.I’m sure you have some questions now – let me try and answer them for you.

Question: ‘Why not just be super nice all the time?’

What an excellent point and well made my esteemed and honoured reader! Truly your insight is dazzling and your powers of perception are unequalled. I regret to point out that research has shown that if you start to exceed a ratio of around 11 to 13:1 then more positivity stops being beneficial. Presumably because it starts being viewed as forced and insincere.

Question: ‘I’m nice all the time – so do I now have to up-size my put-downs’?

Actually Jelly for Brains – that’s not a dumb question. According to Losada and Heaphy successful teams actually require a certain proportion of ‘negativity’. This is intriguing. Imagine you are at an unusually productive team meeting. The ideas are flowing, work is progressing and your colleagues are being super productive and expressing their gratitude and encouragement to each other. You notice that the number of positive comments is flying thick and fast. You become alarmed so you grab a pencil and start a running tally – becoming more nervous as the number of supportive remarks hits 10 then 20, now 30. Quick! The ratio is out of whack – say something! Remember it has to be sarcastic, disapproving or cynical! You will be doing them a favour. ‘Umm. Your mumma bakes cakes for sailors.’ It doesn’t seem likely that will work help things does it?

Maybe every team requires just one person who you can safely direct abusive comments to. Someone who can harmlessly, even gratefully, accept derision for the sake of the team. Are they saying that every team need a Baldrick? But because this is so unbelievable I’m going to let Losada and Heaphy explain in their own words (one of the more accessible paragraphs in their paper) why you need a certain amount of negativity.

“We need to have organizations where the polarity of other and self, of ‘you’ and ‘I’ is integrated into a sense of ‘we’; where the polarity of inquiry and advocacy, of questions and answers, can drive a productive and ongoing dialogue; where the abundance of positivity, grounded in constructive negative feedback, can generate the state of realistic enthusiasm that can propel organizations to reach and uphold the heights of excellence”

Well that clears that up then.

Question: ‘I would praise my staff more if only they weren’t so crap.’

Funny thing is they say the same thing about you – and by the way who hired those monkeys? Exactly. So listen up. There is a well-established phenomenon called the ‘Pygmalion Effect’ where it has been shown that high or low performance expectations become self-fulfilling. For example there was a study in the Israeli army where drill instructors were tricked into believing that certain soldiers would achieve superior performances. Those soldiers subsequently performed far better. The upshot is leaders often get the performance they expect from subordinates. So why not up the praise and see what happens?


Bing Crosby said it best – Everyone together!

‘You’ve got to ah-cen-tuate the positiveE-lim-inate the negativeLatch on to the affirmative Don’t mess with Mister In-Between’ You’ve got to spread joy up to the maximum (of 13 joy to 1 gloom) Bring gloom down to the minimum (of 1 gloom to 5 joy) Have faith or pandemonium (is) liable to walk upon the scene!

References and further reading

Baumeister, R.F., Bratslavsky, E., Finkenauer, C., & Vohs, K.D.(2001). Bad is stronger than good. Review of General Psychology, 5, 323-370. Here is a link to the pdf:

Marcial Losada and Emily Heaphy (2004); 47; 740 The Role of Positivity and Connectivity in the Performance of Business Teams: A Nonlinear Dynamics Model, American Behavioral Scientist Clifton, D.O., & Rath, T. (2004) How Full is Your Bucket? Positive Strategies for Work and Life. NY: Gallup Press.


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