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Power of Positivity in Building Team: The 5:1 Rule!

Posted by Kathy Laster on 05/23/2017

This past week, our team participated in the Women In Negotiation Summit in New York City. Cristina and I had the privilege of speaking to the general session and conducting a separate breakout group for over 300 amazing, accomplished female leaders. We also hosted a booth and gave free 15-minute one-on-one coaching consultations to the many attendees who signed up.  
There was a ton of work that had to be done in preparation for this conference.  Our whole team was involved…developing marketing booth materials for the first time, updating our website, developing a print piece of our favorite blogs called The Brain Trust, arranging for giveaways to be put in participant’s bags, working hand-in-hand with the conference organizers, providing content for social media, coordinating the individual consultation appointments, and working closely with our website and social media partners to pull off heavy workloads and tight deadlines.  Each of these activities was quite an undertaking in itself.  The team did amazing work to pull it off on top of an already loaded client delivery schedule!
My part in all of this was mostly to not get in the way as my partner led the charge.  I tended to our core business while all this planning and executing was happening, and contributed when asked or needed.  Occasionally, I would offer a suggestion or point out something that might need to go differently.  I thought I was also commenting on and reinforcing all the good things that were happening.  And I was.  But not enough.  I forgot the very important 5:1 rule!
What the team heard was primarily only the corrections I was suggesting, and I came off as critical.  Me, critical?  Warning…blind spot!  I think of myself as an encourager.  My intent was to be helpful and to improve upon the process.  My impact was not as I was intending.  This is because I forgot the 5:1 rule.
We must say positive things 5 times to every 1 “negative” comment.  By the way, suggestions for improvement are considered negative!  I wasn’t keeping up with the ratio.  Interestingly, I was, in my mind.  I noticed the many tasks getting done, saw the great outcomes of the work, and marveled at all the individual and team effort.  It was as if I expected others to “know” all the positive things I was thinking.  They should know that if I said one positive thing, that I REALLY felt it and they should totally get the intensity of the positive-ness I was feeling. 
So, you can imagine, when I was given feedback that I was being overly critical, I was shocked.  How could this be?  Could they not see all the positives I was thinking and feeling?  How could a few, what I viewed as constructive comments, be taken out of context from all the positives I saw? 
I wrote a blog on the 5:1 rule some time back.  Apparently, I wasn’t walking my talk.  So, as I came to this realization that I need to up my game on the 5:1 rule, I thought I would share with you this failure on my part. 
For one thing,
you may be able to relate.  We get so busy getting it all done, we don’t always take the time to verbalize or write down the positive things we are thinking.  In our zest to move things forward, we go right to the heart of what needs fixed, rather than stepping back and commenting on all that’s going right.  People are energized from having their efforts acknowledged!  I feel it, too.  When people are seemingly “overly critical” of me, it gets me down and derails my energy.  All I have to do is put myself in their shoes for two seconds to truly understand their reactions.
I want to remind myself and you of why the 5:1 rule exists.  According to Dr. Boyatzis, Distinguished University Professor at Case Western University, current neurological research findings on MRI studies provide evidence that negative emotions are stronger than positive ones. 

  • Arousal of negative emotions stimulate the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS), which inhibits access to existing neural circuits and invokes cognitive, emotional, and perceptual impairment. In other words, when we feel defensive, we tend to go into a self-protective mode and close down, narrow our perspectives, and potentially distort or misinterpret data.  Our ideas get limited; we aren’t open to new ideas or able to think outside the box.


  • Positive emotions arouse the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS), which stimulates the growth of new neurons in adults, a sense of well-being, better immune system functioning, and cognitive, emotional, and perceptual openness.  When the PNS is activated, we tend to open ourselves up to new possibilities, become more creative, and learn and adapt better.

What this means:
It takes 5 positive statements to equal the impact of one negative statement.  You can apply this with your significant other, as well as your team and colleagues! You may have even heard of Dr. John Gottman’s magic 5:1 ratio in personal relationships. In other words, as long as there are five times as many positive interactions between partners as there are negative, the relationship is likely to be stable. It is based on this ratio that Dr. Gottman is able to predict divorce!
So, back to the team! 
The good news is, I did hear the feedback and I’ve recommitted myself to walking my talk.  I plan to be more self-aware and to be more intentional in keeping up the right positivity ratio.  As leaders, there are times that we have to course correct, give constructive feedback, and offer improvement suggestions.  But, we need to carefully balance this with significantly more positivity to achieve our intended impact.  Are you doing this enough on your team?  
I spent my long plane ride back making sure to document and send to each team member ALL the positives of what I noticed in their work, effort, and the outcomes they produced.  In doing so, I felt extremely grateful to them. I was reminded of how fortunate I am to be a part of, and to be benefitting from, our amazing Impact Team!

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