Kids are smart.  This was illustrated for me once again on a recent long drive with my family.  Somehow we got on the topic of people who offer too much praise, and others who don’t offer enough.  According to my 10 and 14 year-old kids there’s a “just right” mix of praise and criticism  It turns out, my kids’ perceptions align with science.  It also aligns with my experience with clients and in my workshops.

First Place Medal--Importance of PraisePraise

Anecdotally, most of us like to work with and for people who recognize our good work and offer positive reinforcement to acknowledge it.  But, science bears this out as well. In a 2004 study, Gallup found the link between praise and performance.
Our latest analysis, which includes more than 10,000 business units and more than 30 industries, has found that individuals who receive regular recognition and praise:

  • increase their individual productivity
  • increase engagement among their colleagues
  • are more likely to stay with their organization
  • receive higher loyalty and satisfaction scores from customers
  • have better safety records and fewer accidents on the job . . .

But is too much praise a bad thing?

The Importance of Criticism

During our conversation, my son said, “If someone only ever tells you how great you do, or how awesome you are it starts to not mean much.  It feels like they aren’t really paying attention.”  (I’ll show him this post the next time he needs to clean his room or spend more time on his math homework.)

It’s true. We’ve all worked for someone who is so positive, so upbeat and complimentary, that we feel the praise is insincere.  Those words of encouragement lose their power and can often lead to resentment.  We need criticism every once in awhile, if for no other reason than to be ensured that the praise we receive is genuine.

In their article for the Harvard Business Review, “The Ideal Praise-to-Criticism Ratio”, Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman explore the most effective combination of praise and criticism for better performance.

According to the article, and the research its based on,  “The average ratio for the highest-performing teams was 5.6 (that is, nearly six positive comments for every negative one). The medium-performance teams averaged 1.9 (almost twice as many positive comments than negative ones.) But the average for the low-performing teams, at 0.36 to 1, was almost three negative comments for every positive one.”

Their conclusion:  A little criticism goes a long way.  That lines up with my experience as well.  People want to feel good about themselves, their abilities and their work.  They want supervisors and leaders who acknowledge, in a sincere way, when they do a good job.  They also know they aren’t perfect.  And even though critical feedback can sting, high performers want and need it to improve.

The Takeaway

As a leader or manager, pay attention to your praise to criticism ratio.  If you’ve received feedback, formally or informally that you are too critical, think about the number and intensity of positive versus negative comments you make to your colleagues and to those you supervise.

Some things you may want to try:

  • Find opportunities to offer sincere compliments
  • Acknowledge effort, not just accomplishment
  • Be specific.  Don’t just say, “Great job.”  Follow it up with a particular action or idea that deserves praise.
  • Be sparing but purposeful with critical comments
  • Reduce or eliminate the amount of sarcasm you use with direct reports

Jerritt Johnston is the Owner of True North Consultants, which promotes organizational, individual and team growth through challenging, fun and relevant activities and processes.  True North is an Authorized Partner for Everything DiSC®and The Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team™.