On Criticism and Innovation

When working on a project or just doing day-to-day work, managers and team members are given countless opportunities to either praise, criticize, or ignore others work. HBR just wrote an article called ‘The Ideal Praise-to-Criticism Ratio’ that explains how a mix of both is best to improve team performance. The research was a bit limited in that it took a binary view of praise/criticism and ignored ‘flavors’ of criticism like sarcasm and disparaging remarks. Recognizing that limitation, they found that a ratio of 5 positive comments to 1 negative comment was most beneficial to team performance.

Once might ask why any criticism would be valuable? You could have a ratio of 100:1 and be SUPER positive, but the researchers found that criticism helps ‘grab someone’s attention’ and actually amplifies the positive remarks.

My favorite part of their article was the reference to the research conducted by John Gottman on married couples. Apparently the ratio of five statements of praise to one of criticism is the ideal for reducing divorce rates. It might be an overstatement to call it a universal truth, but it’s interesting to see the ratio get used in other settings outside of the workplace .

If we want to go past simple ratios, I’d recommend checking out an article by Christian Heilmann called ‘Drive-By Criticism Must Die’. It recognizes how criticism can be incredibly valuable to innovation. By taking the time to analyze someone’s work and provide thoughtful criticism (aka feedback), you can improve performance without making people feel cut down.

“Good criticism takes time and effort. A good critic doesn’t only point out that something is flawed, instead it is important to explain what the flaws are, what their impact on the overall quality is and what could be done to improve. A bad critic flat out tells what should be done, believing in a subjective truth or way of working formed by the critic’s own environmental influences.”

As communication moves ever more swiftly to online, social, and mobile channels, it’s become very easy to be hasty and even terse when providing feedback. Let’s take the time to dig a little deeper, and provide feedback (positive or negative) that supports and uplifts innovation. It takes a few moments longer, but the results will surely be worth it.