The Perfect Mix of Praise and Criticism

Paul Hebert Paul Hebert, Performance

What is that mix? What is the proper mix of how much you praise someone for their performance versus help them attack and address deficiencies in their performance? In good consultant speak… the answer is… it depends.

It depends mostly on whether someone is a top performer, an average performer or a low performer. Where someone falls on that continuum can inform us as to whether to focus on the carrot or the stick so to speak.

A study was discussed about a year ago on HBR about the ideal praise to criticism ratio. Turns out there is a number.

5.6 to 1

Yep… there you go–5.6 positive comments to each negative one. I’m guessing we can round up to 6–not sure how you’d get to a .6 negative comment… maybe just tell them their shoes are nice but out of date?

The study also showed that for lower performers, greater success can be had with more negative than positive comments and for higher performers more positive comments made a bigger difference than increasing negative comments. They noted in the post that this seems to run counter to thinking that says we should focus on our strengths not our weakness to create great employees.

This information seems to indicate that focusing on strengths only applies to those already performing at a high level. I don’t think I remember that from the books…

Tipping Point

The way I read this information is this…

The praise-to-criticism ratio changes over time as the employee’s performance goes from poor, to average, to exceptional. And that just makes sense. If you have an employee who is just plain not getting it–making sure you praise them 5 times before you tell them to improve their performance won’t change their behavior that much. Sure, you’ll be reinforcing the behavior they do well–at the expense of not fixing the 5 other things that impact their performance–or the overall team’s performance. In other words… you can’t apply the same approach to your worst employees as you do with your best employees.

The chart below gives you some idea of how I think this should look. As performance improves, the ratio of praise to criticism improves. I am not suggesting my numbers are scientifically proven–I’m just saying based on my reading the research, we need to change our approach and actually start offering criticism.

performance curve2

So much for everyone getting a trophy, eh?

Lesson for today–HR and managing performance is never a one-size-fits-all solution.  Never was, never will be.

And that is what makes being a manager and being in HR so much dang fun, right? No clear answer–no plug ‘n play.

Just variability all day long.




Paul Hebert
Paul Hebert is Senior Director of Solutions Architecture at Creative Group Inc, writer, speaker and consultant. Paul focuses on influencing behaviors and driving business results through employees, channel partners and consumers. He is dedicated to creating true emotional connections often overlooked in our automated, tech-enabled world. Using proven motivational theory, behavioral economics and social psychology he has driven extraordinary company performance for his clients. Paul is widely considered an expert on motivation, incentives, and engagement.