It Doesn’t Pay To Be Stingy With Praise by Sue Caba

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Do you praise your employees five times more often than you criticize them?

If not, you’re missing one of the most cost-effective techniques for building employee engagement, increasing profits, improving safety records and lowering absenteeism. Praise, after all, is free.

Employees who don’t get enough praise or feel their boss doesn’t listen are 30 percent more likely than other workers to suffer a heart attack and three times more likely to look for another job within a year, according to research by Harvard, Gallup and The Aberdeen Group.

Positive feedback doesn’t have to be–in fact, shouldn’t be–excessive.  A simple “thank you,” or “Hey, loved the way you worded that letter,” is often appropriate, so long as it’s sincere.

Atta-girls image

Why does it work?

Because receiving an “atta-girl” gives your brain a little shot of dopamine–the body’s feel-good hormone and neurotransmitter. And that little burst of pleasure prompts you to repeat the behavior that prompted the rewarding feeling.

Yet, very few managers practice the art of praise. The Gallup Organization has analyzed the responses of many thousands of employees, surveyed on job satisfaction in the past five decades. Only one third reported receiving positive feedback in the week before they were questioned.

That’s not nearly enough. The dopamine glow is short-lived. We  should be getting positive feedback every day, not once a week.

Recognition, reward and praise are high on the list of primary human needs. Professor Frederick I. Helzberg identified recognition as one of the five motivators or contributors to worker satisfaction. His 1968 article for the Harvard Business Review, “One More Time, How Do You Motivate Employees,” is still among HBR’s most-requested reprints.

How much is enough?

In the 1990s, psychologist John Sottman hit on what he calls the “magic ratio” of five positive for every negative interactions while studying factors that contribute to divorce.  He realized he could predict, after one 15-minute conversation with newlyweds, whether they would be divorced in ten years, based on the ratio of positive to negative interactions in that brief time.

Since then, the effectiveness of praise in increasing productivity and the validity of the five-to-one ratio has been confirmed by extensive studies in business settings. Consultant Marcial Losada (working with academicians Barbara Fredickson, Ph.D. and Emily Heaphy, Ph.D.) even established a minimum baseline–the Losada line–for well-balanced, productive teams.

When the praise/criticism ratio falls below 2.9, team performance falters.

Silence Is Not GoldenSilence Not Golden Image

Maybe you take the “If I don’t say anything, you’re doing fine” approach. That’s a no-go. Our brains naturally go to a negative interpretation. When you say nothing about an accomplishment, our inner gremlins begin whispering “I must be doing something wrong.”

Silence is particularly harmful when praise is expected but not delivered. Dopamine levels drop in that situation–that’s like promising a 10-year-old a bicycle for Christmas and then giving her a book, instead.

Okay, you’re thinking, I’ll make sure I hit the mark with positive feedback. That’s fine, as long as the praise is deserved and sincere. Fake, insincere or undeserved praise doesn’t produce that  dopamine surge. Earned recognition is the best kind.

Along those same lines, you can give too much praise. When the ratio approaches or exceeds 11/1, the positive feedback ceases to mean anything.

Sometimes Negative Is Necessary

It’s best to focus on strengths, rather than try to fix weaknesses. That doesn’t mean ignoring a serious problem. But criticism will be better accepted when it’s layered with praise. Instead of saying, “that’s a lousy idea,” try “I like A, B and C of your plan, but what are you going to do if X happens?”  If you’ve given appropriate positive feedback, the negative will be more readily accepted.

One last thing: Give positive feedback in the way most acceptable to the person getting praise. If he’s shy and likes to stay in the background, a balloons-and-horns party might just mortify him. A quiet “thank you” might not be appropriate for someone who thrives on public recognition.

The bottom line? Be generous with sincere, well-deserved praise.


Susan Caba, Author Complete Idiot's Guide to LeadershipThis guest post is by Susan Caba, author of leadership books like The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Leadership Fast Track. She’s covered leaders, business, education and societal issues for 30 years. Susan is housesitting across the U.S. for a year, “simplifying, clarifying, and creating an artful life.” Find out what she’s learning at Resale Evangelista or connect with her on twitter @Susan_Caba.

Images Courtesy of: Archipoch/, Smarnad/, and Ddpavumba/


  1. Hugo Skoppek says:

    I have read your article and intuitively want to believe it, however, a similar article in the HBR ( has a disclaimer noting that “the journal that published this study (by Emily Heaphy and Marcial Losada) has since expressed concern about the data. We first became aware of this research in Kim Cameron’s book, Positive Leadership. Like many others, we were distressed to learn of the incorrect data in the Heaphy and Losada research and we immediately ceased our citations upon learning that the study wasn’t correct. But we do believe the basic assumption and premise that leaders should provide more positive than negative feedback is correct.”
    That was 3 years ago. I am wondering whether there have been any new findings.


  1. […] every negative remark or behaviour needs to be balanced by 5 positive interactions. Further research has shown this to be equally valid in high-performing teams. Excellent teams have a […]

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