A Little Criticism Goes a Long Way

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Leaders must have feedback to grow. Those who become exemplary leaders start out much like others. What causes them to grow into stellar leaders is their ability to learn from feedback and mistakes. Instead of adopting an “I’ve got to be me” attitude, they know that God has given them the potential to grow into someone who can be even more effective.

Both affirmation and criticism are needed for leaders to grow, but not in equal proportions. When we receive more criticism than affirmation, little improvement takes place.

So why is it that most of us fear, or even resent, criticism? Or, on the other hand, perhaps we feel we do not receive the kind of feedback that is truly helpful to us. Why is our first response to feedback often more defensive than thankful? Or, perhaps, you are on the giving end of feedback, and your suggestions seem to make no difference.  What’s the problem? The ratios may be wrong.

Yes, both affirmation and criticism are needed for leaders to grow, but not in equal proportions. In research described by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman in The Ideal Praise-to-Criticism Ratio,” it becomes clear that when we receive more criticism than affirmation, little improvement takes place.

The authors discuss two studies. In one, the performance of team members was measured by the ratio of positive comments to negative comments made by team members. In this study, the ratio for the highest performing teams was about six positive comments for every negative one. The medium performing groups had a positive to negative feedback ratio of about 2 to 1. And the lowest performing teams had about three negative comments for every positive one.

The authors note that while criticism is an important part of the mix for all leaders, “a little negative feedback goes a long way.” It is likely that neither those who hear only affirmation nor those who hear nothing but criticism will learn and grow. In fact, the positive feedback may make the most difference in improving performance. The power of affirmation of one’s strengths does far more to help someone build on those strengths than does criticism of their weakness make them better at their weakest points. Both are needed, but not in the same amounts.

Related research recounted by Zenger and Folkman studied the likelihood that married couples would stay married based on the ratio of positive to negative comments made to each other. In this study, for those who stayed married, the ratio of positive to negative was five to one. For those who divorced, the ratio was three positive comments for every four negative ones.

So whether it is the 6:1 ratio or 5:1 ratio of positive to negative feedback, remember that, when it is warranted, it is helpful to make comments critical of someone’s work. But, if you want it to make a difference, do it after paving the way with five or six affirmations.


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About Author

Dr. Lovett H. Weems, Jr.

Lovett H. Weems Jr. is senior consultant at the Lewis Center for Church Leadership, distinguished professor of church leadership emeritus at Wesley Theological Seminary, and author of several books on leadership.


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