The Rewarding Discipline of Positive Leadership

“Doesn’t being so positive with people end up meaning that you’re denying reality?”  

I was asked this at a Women’s Executive Leadership program at the Haas Business School at Berkeley last week.  She was responding to my challenge: great relationships tilt heavily positive, so if you want to lead well, get positive! I was sharing the evidence from two different domains – business research on team-effectiveness and research on positivity in marital relations.  It turns out that approximately 5 positive comments to 1 critical comment characterize the most effective business teams as well as the strongest marriages.*

I noted that this research is both counter-intuitive!!! and it sets such a high behavioral bar!!!  As to intuition:  our minds come factory-loaded with an idea of “balance,” and 5:1 seems so wildly out of balance. Even in HR supervision courses, we learn about giving 2:1 feedback through which we offer a compliment, then the criticism, then another compliment (sometimes jokingly referred to as the sh-t sandwich).  But FIVE to one? Do people really reach that bar?  And to my interrogator’s question from which this blog began:  Doesn’t that require denying reality to find 5 “good” for every single “bad”?

Her question absolutely BEGS the question: “Well, what is reality?”  No, I’m not smoking pot nor getting totally esoteric for a Monday morning missive!!!  My point is that “reality” is hardly so objective.  For example, I can focus on my sore throat, and it is part of reality. But I can also or instead focus on the fact that there are amazing antibodies at work in my system that are healing me.  Is one any more a part of reality? Take a second example:  If you have come to believe your co-worker is lazy, what the psychologists call “confirmation bias” will lead you to see only those “real” behaviors which confirm that belief.


My answer to the woman’s question with which I introduced this column is this:  You can ask whether you’re being “unrealistic, but only after you have really practiced the discipline of paying attention to the positive parts of reality!  Look for them like you used to look for “what’s wrong with this picture” in a Highlights magazine when you were a kid.  Take your challenging kid or problematic boss or annoying spouse and actively look for what they do well, because they do do things well! (And if you don’t believe me, it’s a sure sign your confirmation bias is distorting what you think is the full reality).  Break out a list and find every good thing they are and they do.  Start to thank and acknowledge them.  See what it does to YOU, but also, see if it doesn’t start to change what they show to you.

Practice the discipline of seeing the positive first, and then later we can talk about whether by doing so you are totally obscuring reality.

Or, don’t :-).

If you choose — and it is a choice — to believe you are seeing “objectively,” then fine:   Believe you are objectively seeing reality, but Know that you are heightening your dissatisfaction by seeing what makes you miserable, and you are running against the research grain that seeing (and saying) 5:1 positive will generate optimal results. 

See it and say it, to

Lead with your best self.


* For the business research, see for example Zenger and Folkman, “The Ideal Praise-to-Criticism-Ratio,”  at And for the research on marriage, see a summary of John Gottman’s work at

  • Thanks for posting this research here. I have taught the 5:1 ratio in communications related topics, only to see how much discipline is required to make it work. Positive Psychology has a lot to offer.

  • I have doing some Internet searches for books on rational therapy, but have not found the ones I am trying to remember the names of. The 5:1 ration is one way to communicate, and I will not argue against it. But another method, is to be rational about what you say. That is do not exaggerate anything. It is hard to do, since most people will speak in absolutes, and say things like, “You always mess up,” when in reality no one always messes things up. If you can catch yourself saying or writing in absolute terms, then try to say what is a realistic statement, like, this time you did not take a note when a phone call came is, so we are having a hard time returning the call.

  • Greetings Dan,

    This reminds me of the old axiom which basically says “don’t concentrate on the glass being half full “. Thanks for sharing all your educational stories.

    Take Care, Keith Crockett

    Note: I attend church with Vic.

  • Thanks again for some great insight, Dan.

    My late husband used to get on me for being a “cock-eyed optimist” believing that my point of view was too skewed. I would respond that he was a pessimist; to which he would counter that he was a realist. ;~} I don’t think I’ve ever met a pessimist who didn’t believe that he/she was a realist. Confirmation bias at work.

  • A good reminder and a useful practice. I have a concern about formulas. We need to guard against becoming mechanical. People can tell if you are working to meet a quota.

    I recently companioned my dad to his passing. He went through critical final life review stages heavily laden with judgment. I was witness to that while holding the vision of the magnificence of his soul, which, as his daughter, was imprinted on me at a very young age. I wasn’t giving him a poke to stroke ratio. I saw his inner greatness and reflected that back to him, even as our tender and innocent discussions focused on his “failings and flaws” (aka his humanity.)

    Having a poke to stroke ratio invokes a critical mindset that puts us as judge of everything. Where does that leave the heart? Left brain practices CAN overshadow right brain wisdom.

  • At a youth soccer coaching clinic, the instructor taught us the oreo cookie technique. To give your players feedback, give them one compliment, then the criticism, then another compliment. Otherwise, they will just tune out your criticism.
    This made total sense to me and I used it with my teams. I found it to be effective. I would not denigrate it by calling it the “sh-t sandwich.” Both the oreo cookie technique and the 5:1 ratio rest on the same principle. People get discouraged if they are noticed or feel noticed only when they make a mistake. Everybody appreciates a compliment. And compliments from a boss or co-worker usually lead to more of the behaviors that produced the compliment.

  • Dan, I’m glad you’re back to something related to leadership although liberalism drives it off the reality road, again. The name of an article would be “The reward of EFFECTIVE Leadership.” In the real world of business, effective leadership requires first and foremost honesty. There is much training for “leadership” (“grooming school” we deride it as) but it based on being false. A fake. Yours is based on this also. It isn’t first about getting objectives met and the team directed properly to achieve it is to first maintain self-esteem in the team (sometimes useful, sometimes not). The first importance in leading for achievement is to “compliment 3 times”?? First, people know you are shining them and giving “compliments” by the book. This does 2 things – they don’t work because they know you are faking it and, most importantly, it ruins a MOST effective tool in leadership – a genuine compliment. They think you’re faking compliments all the time. In the real world of business leadership for achievement and success it is CRITICAL to be honest with the team and individual members, good OR bad. And in both cases you do not start with compliments. When the result was bad you must share your personal disappointment that WE, the team including leadership, failed to achieve the objective. Leaders are not robots. They are people and they experience human emotion in failure and success. This is OK. The reaction is not to hide this but to use it to improve team achievement. Also, the leader cannot and should not take team failure all on himself. As in success, the failure of the team needs to be shared and distributed. There is much stress in the world of business and stress cannot be only for the leader while he doles out compliments for the team. The stress must be shared in the team and distributed by being clear how we failed, how we feel about the failure and how we can, will and must do better next time. Then, when the team lives the reality that WE failed, this done correctly, becomes the most effective tool to spur the team to perform better. Then, when true success is achieved the team bathes in the victory. REAL victory. It is in total parallel with running a high achieving sports enterprise. Do you suppose Bill Belichick, considered the finest football coach in the history of the NFL, after a loss, starts his meetings with 3 compliments? If he did, he’d be out of football or any leadership endeavor. Lead with your true self.

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