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.


Filed under Giving Feedback, Good with the Bad

11 responses to “There’s a place for ‘Appropriate Negativity’

  1. Excellent post. Most of the people I’ve encountered who are resistant to increasing their ratio of positive-to-negative comments are afraid of losing their grounding in reality. And one of the great dangers of an “all-positive” environment is losing the capacity for critical dialog and being in denial about pressing, life-impacting problems.
    However, I often remind people who voice this concern (as well as myself!) that both the positive and the negative are a part of the “whole” situation, and to value the negative at the expense of the positive is just as damaging (if not more so) than the reverse.
    –Liz 😉

  2. Kathryn

    Thanks, Liz.

    We used to have a term for people who could always see why things would NOT work: Keepers of the Nightmare.

    I haven’t got a similar catch phrase for people who go too far the other way.

    Your comment has inspired me to look for Richard Gabriel’s book about writers’ workshops. Ah! the entire book is online. Watch for my next post.


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  5. I enjoyed this post and appreciate the reminder of the recommended ratios.

    One point I would add: if feedback is about the other person, then positive or negative refers to that person. If feedback is about me (the feedback giver) and what I observed and experienced, I wonder if the terms “positive” and “negative” are even relevant. Kegan and Lahey in their book How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work, make two intriguing proposals for feedback:
    1. Don’t give constructive feedback, give deconstructive feedback. How? By describing it as your assessment or your experience, not the truth, and then asking for the other person’s perspective (i.e. inviting them to deconstruct what you’ve just said). In this case, if anything is negative, it is the emotions I am declaring (e.g. hurt, angry, sad, disappointed).
    2. When you appreciate someone, make it specific, direct, and non-attributive. The non-attributive part means that I’m describing how I felt (amused, happy, joyful, curious, delighted) when you did X, not telling you that you’re wonderful, charming, funny, a great public speaker, etc. In this case, if anything is positive about the feedback, is it the emotions I am declaring I feel.

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