Daily Archives: January 7, 2008

There’s a place for ‘Appropriate Negativity’

I like the idea of virtue being the expert mean between deficit and excess (thanks, Aristotle). For example, courage is the expert mean between cowardice and rashness. Expert indicates that finding the right place in the middle requires judgment. A particular act may be courageous in some situations and foolishly rash in others.

The expert mean between too much and too little negativity is important when giving feedback. Too much negativity can cause the receiver to lose sight of what is good, to lose confidence, or even to give up. Too little negativity can make the feedback unbelievable and can also deprive receivers of the information they need to get better.

The expert mean between too much and too little negativity is supported by research by Barbara Fredrickson, Marcial Losada, John Gottman, and others on the effect of different positive-to-negative ratios in several contexts including marriage and team behavior.

Avoidance of excess: Fredrickson and Losada have determined that a positive-to-negative ratio of 2.9 is the dividing line between human flourishing and human languishing. That means at least 2.9 positive things are said or done for any one negative thing. It works within a person, between two people, and in larger groups. For example, teams identified as being highly productive tended to have 5 to 6 positive utterances to every negative utterance, while the least productive teams tended to have slightly more negative than positive utterances. I believe John Gottman talks about a 5-to-1 ratio for highly successful marriages.

Avoidance of deficit: There is also an upper limit for effective positive-to-negative ratios: 11.6 to 1. Here’s part of the explanation from Fredrickson & Losada “appropriate negativity may play an important role within the complex dynamics of human flourishing. Without appropriate negativity, behavior patterns calcify.”

The key here is appropriate negativity, which they describe as specific to a situation, carrying ideas for solution, and not being personal.

Most teams that I advise need to work on raising their ratios – saying more positive things. There are a lot of people around who can always see why things won’t work or can point out things that are the matter. Then it helps to have a clear discipline for expressing positive views, such as starting all reviews with a statement of strengths and positive features and expressing all criticism in terms of ways to improve.

But I’ve also been in situations in the last year where I felt stifled by having everything be positive. I think of it as political correctness jail. I don’t enjoy getting criticism any more than the next person, yet I’ve learned that there is great value in having others point out ways to improve.

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