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In a recent In Your Corner article we gave some specific positive advice for doing classroom observations—whether they are done in the traditional in-person style or in the context of remote teaching and learning.


As a result of the article, one principal wrote: “All my teachers’ observations will be renamed teacher celebrations.” Wow! What a great way to reframe what is often thought of as an anxiety producing process.


Still, we have to be realistic. Giving feedback (sometimes negative) to colleagues and subordinates is essential to their learning and growth, just as it is with students. However, we do worry that giving too much negative feedback, even when our colleagues are on the wrong track, will negatively impact our relationship with them. We get concerned that not being honest with them may only serve to cripple them in the long run. So what are we to do? And is there a guide—an ideal praise-to-criticism ratio—that would be wise to follow?


Much research has been conducted on this subject. One of the most compelling studies was done by Emily Heaphy and Marcial Losada who examined the effectiveness of 60 leadership teams in a large information-processing company. They found the factor that makes the single greatest difference between the most and least successful teams was the ratio of positive comments to negative comments the participants made to one another.


The average ratio for the highest producing teams was 5.6/1. Medium producing teams had a ratio of 1.9/1. And the lowest performing teams had a ratio of .36/1—almost three negative comments to every positive one. Think about a collaborative group you have been a part of and reflect upon your experiences, the group’s successes or failures, and the feelings you had. How might these ratios have played a role in your experience?


Other researchers have come to the similar conclusion that a 5/1 praise-to-criticism ratio produces the best results. This is not to say negative feedback isn’t important, especially if someone is about to do something that would jeopardize themself or others. But certainly, without the right ratio of positive to negative, people may not put forth their best efforts. A recent Harvard study found critical feedback and advice can move highly competent people to the next level. But, for most, only positive feedback can motivate people to continue what they are doing well.


So what are some practical steps we can take to make sure our interactions get closer to this ratio?


First, we can understand we are all works in progress. We won’t always achieve this ratio—but it’s still important that we try. We can begin by tracking our current practice, limiting our tracking to a couple of people each day. The results are likely to astound us. Here are some things we should look for: How many times do we compliment others? How many times do we give statements of encouragement, check in on colleagues for things we know they are concerned about, and laugh with them? There are many other ways we can make positive connections as well. But these are a good start.


Second, we can make our praise sincere and personal. The 5/1 ratio is important for our colleagues, not just the group as a whole. It’s important, of course, to praise an entire staff at times. But know that some people will assume you are praising others and not them. You must also be sincere in your praise. People have a keen nose for praise that lacks conviction. They may even interpret it as the opposite of praise, or worse, that you have low expectations for particular people, but are merely trying to be positive.


Third, when we feel we have to give negative feedback, we can make sure we assess how much the person can handle and how best to present it. In truth, people can only handle so much especially if the feedback is negative. Therefore, we should limit negative comments to one or two things the person can do something about. Then we have to stop. Remember, feedback is not about getting something off our chest. It’s about helping the other person be successful.


Fourth, we can monitor our tone when giving feedback. It’s possible to give negative feedback while still emphasizing someone’s strengths. For instance, “John, your ideas are outstanding. Can I ask you to supply more details the next time we talk so I can have a full understanding?”


Fifth, understand that positive praise can be given publicly, but negative feedback is best reserved for a private conversation. Negative feedback, even when it’s constructive and carefully delivered, can be embarrassing. And when you embarrass someone in front of others, they may never forgive you. Therefore, always be aware of who can hear you when you have to give negative feedback, knowing that preserving a person’s standing with others is key to maintaining your good relationship with them.


Giving feedback is a delicate art. It can compel a person to work harder, better and with enthusiasm—or it can crush their spirit. It can cause a person to use their strengths to the fullest or to be consumed by their weaknesses. The key is to establish the right praise-to-criticism ratio upfront. People are capable of receiving candid and constructive feedback from a person who they know sees their strengths, believes in them, and has high expectations of them. That’s why it’s important that we spend time honing this vital art. Getting it right can mean the difference in people believing in themselves and their abilities going forward or not believing in themselves at all.


Zenger, J., & Folkman, J. (2013, March 15). The ideal praise-to-criticism ratio. The Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2013/03/the-ideal-praise-to-criticism

Thought for the Week

AI can teach and share knowledge, sure, but it lacks the key elements of human modeling, nurturing, and connecting that are essential components of a comprehensive learning process.

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