Praise vs. Criticism: What’s the Right Amount to Give Employees?

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We all know the compliment sandwich is a bad idea as it sends employees confusing mixed messages (“Am I doing a good job or not?”).

We also all know that constructive criticism is important, otherwise how could we improve or know what is most important for us to focus our efforts on to improve?

But what’s the right ratio of constructive criticism to praise and recognition? It’s certainly not 1:1 or even 2:1. The proper ratio is nearly 6:1 praise to criticism.

Research reported in Harvard Business Review’s blog measured the “effectiveness” of strategic business unit leadership teams using the “financial performance, customer satisfaction ratings, and 360-degree feedback ratings of the team members.”

The number one determing factor between the least successful teams and the most successful? – the ratio of positive comments to negative comments.

From the research:

The average ratio for the highest-performing teams was 5.6 (that is, nearly six positive comments for every negative one). The medium-performance teams averaged 1.9 (almost twice as many positive comments than negative ones.) But the average for the low-performing teams, at 0.36 to 1, was almost three negative comments for every positive one.”

The proper role of negative feedback

That doesn’t mean negative feedback doesn’t play an important role. We all need to know when we’re veering off course so we can adjust and realign.

As the HBR article puts it:

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Negative feedback is important when we’re heading over a cliff to warn us that we’d really better stop doing something horrible or start doing something we’re not doing right away. But even the most well-intentioned criticism can rupture relationships and undermine self-confidence and initiative. It can change behavior, certainly, but it doesn’t cause people to put forth their best efforts.”

When to use positive feedback

Negative feedback resets direction, but it does not inspire or motivate to greater success. If that’s your goal, then you’d best incorporate positive feedback, praise and appreciation into your communications with your team.

Only positive feedback can motivate people to continue doing what they’re doing well, and do it with more vigor, determination, and creativity. Perhaps that’s why we have found with the vast majority of the leaders in our database, who have no outstanding weaknesses, that positive feedback is what motivates them to continue improvement.”

In other words, how do you keep motivating your top performers who are already great and don’t need correction? Positive feedback.

What’s the ratio of negative to positive feedback on your team

You can find more from Derek Irvine on his Recognize This! blog.

Derek Irvine is one of the world’s foremost experts on employee recognition and engagement, helping business leaders set a higher vision and ambition for their company culture. As the Vice President of Client Strategy and Consulting at Globoforce, Derek helps clients — including some of world’s most admired companies such as Proctor and Gamble, Intuit, KPMG, and Thomson Reuters — leverage recognition strategies and best practices to better manage company culture, elevate employee engagement, increase retention, and improve the bottom line. He's also a renowned speaker and co-author of Winning with a Culture of Recognition. Contact him at


5 Comments on “Praise vs. Criticism: What’s the Right Amount to Give Employees?

  1. I wish you had provided more detail on the delivery of positive as well as negative feedback. In my experience, delivery can be the difference between hearing and absorbing what is said by the employee. Respect, dignity and brevity seem to work well…but all need to have authenticity and validity.

  2. 6:1 is a great goal to keep in mind as a manager! As mentioned, a
    respectful delivery is huge. Additionally, negative feedback needs to be
    coupled with a solution. The manager should also act as a mentor/coach to keep the
    individual on track toward this solution.

    -Catherine Davis, ID Practice Lead for SweetRush

  3. Great article and very important to keep motivated employees. You have to have a clear understanding of your employees for great delivery of any feedback. We are in the people business no matter what your trying to accomplish!

  4. Anything in excess will not have the desired result. The ratio of Positive feedback should be more compared to negative. It is still possible to build a positive feedback by highlighting a negative outcome of any of the actions of a person

  5. I fail to see the evidence that this is causation and not correlation

    How do you know that the high performing teams aren’t giving more praise because they are performing well.

    I am much more likely to praise someone who is doing well.

    Praising someone who is doing badly isn’t necessarily going to make them better is it?

    Perhaps the teams who are the highest performing received a lot of constructive criticism at the start and now they are performing well they don’t need so much criticism.

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