I have a two-year-old dog, an eight-week-old puppy, and a four-year-old daughter. I spend a lot of time redirecting behavior. Blankets are chewed. Carpets are soiled. Items are broken. It’s exhausting. However, those same small creatures of destruction also occasionally potty in correct spots, follow instructions, and create random moments of joy very consistently throughout each and every day.
So the daily question I’m faced with is how do I motivate others (four-legged and two-legged alike) to do more of the positive behaviors and less of the undesirable behaviors. As parents, spouses, community members, employers, neighbors, siblings, staff, and teachers – we all face this question. Most of us have a two-pronged approached. First, we tend to focus on negative behaviors – speaking up and moving to action when the behaviors of others are in misalignment with what we desire. Then second, perhaps in fear of jinxing the positive behaviors, we say and do very little when we get desired behaviors.
And, most of us are met with the same results – frustration. Why? Because constantly highlighting negative behaviors does not activate the brain areas associated with motivating change and awareness. In fact, it is quite the opposite – when we negatively criticize behaviors (ours or others) we activate areas in the brain associated with inhibition and survival brain areas connected to fight, flight, and freeze. These deeper brain regions are not thinking regions of the brain- there is no learning, no awareness – only reaction.
Let me be clear, I’m NOT suggesting we ignore less than desirable behaviors. Addressing issues is critical in growth and development. Beyond that, negative comments do change behaviors, they just don’t motivate others to be their best, to consider the issue at hand, or bring forward high performance. Additionally, when negative behaviors are not addressed within a context of connection and respect – we simply aren’t effective in creating positive performance.
According to research, our true power to affect positive change lies in praising the positive. Two specific studies are worthwhile in not only demonstrating the effectiveness for positive feedback but also in providing us with a magic ratio of positive to negative feedback. Let’s remove the guesswork and get down to the facts!
One study focused on the effectiveness of teams in the workplace while the other focused on marriage. Two very different relationship landscapes – but each holds the potential for long-term connection with prosperous or disastrous results. In the workplace study, researchers Emily Heaphy and consultant Marcial Losada found that the greatest factor contributing to the difference in the most and least successful teams was the ratio of positive to negative comments that team members made to each another. High-performing teams averaged a 5.6:1 ratio (nearly six positive comments to each negative comment). Worth highlighting, the medium-performance teams averaged 1.9:1 while low-performing teams came in at 0.36:1 (that’s about 3 negative comments to every one positive comment).
These findings align with the research of Marriage Guru and Researcher, Dr. John Gottman and his team who found that the single biggest determinant to whether or not a married couple was heading towards divorce was, you guessed it, the number of positive comments to negative comments. Gottman’s work showed that the optimal ratio was 5:1 and that couples who ended up divorcing averaged 0.77:1.
In short, notice and then praise behaviors, ideas, and actions that are positive. Here are a few ideas for simple statements that can have a very powerful impact:
- Thank you for thinking of me.
- Yes, I loved that.
- I agree with that last statement.
- Good effort.
- I love the consistency.
- You worked hard on that.
- What a powerful action.
- I love the attention to detail.
- Gesture: Thumbs up.
- Gesture: A nod.
- (And, for the dogs) Good outside potty!
Consider this consistent effort of reinforcing positive behavior as money in the bank. This currency of compassion, consideration, and connection allow relationships (both personal and professional) to withstand the withdraw of negative comments and negative feedback that will inevitably happen. Research seems clear, if we only withdraw, our funds run dry and the account closes – this includes marriages, business relationships, family connections, etc.
In short, to make a strong connection and reinforce positive behaviors:
- First – Actively look for them.
- Second – Provide positive feedback about them (specific, if possible).
- Third – Repeat step one and two often.
This trick works with neighbors, dogs, spouses, colleague, kids, and even on ourselves.
Tiffany is a writer, consultant, speaker, and coach.
Evolutionary Consulting – Neuroscience for Everyday People