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The Gottman Ratio for Happy Relationships at Work

Utilizing praise to increase performance.

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My most memorable professor in graduate school was John Gottman. Then in his early career, he was already doing outstanding work as a teacher and researcher. Over the years, he has created a large body of powerful research findings about what makes marriages work, which has been highly influential in both understanding and improving relationships.

One of Gottman’s many findings was what some call the “Gottman ratio.” It doesn’t take a ton of research to recognize that in strong, satisfying intimate relationships, we have more positive interactions than negative ones. What Gottman discovered through his research is that the magic ratio seems to be 5:1. For a marriage to be happy, we need to have five positive interactions for each negative one. In a way, that’s comforting: You can have some pretty snarly conversations and still be happily married. But on the other hand, the ratio can seem pretty demanding. Five to one? That’s a lot of positivity. But if you fall below that ratio, your marriage may start experiencing problems.

Applying the Gottman ratio to the workplace

What does this have to do with business leadership? Research published in 2004 looked at whether the Gottman ratio also applied to work relationships. The researchers evaluated the effectiveness of 60 leadership teams, measured by financial performance, customer satisfaction ratings, and 360-degree feedback ratings of team members. The most important factor that differentiated the most and least successful teams was in fact the ratio of positive comments to negative comments the participants made to one another. The average ratio for the highest-performing teams was 5.6:1, positive to negative. The medium-performance teams averaged about 2:1, positive to negative. But the average for the low-performing teams was 1:3: These groups experienced almost three negative comments for each positive one.

It’s interesting to note that the ratio for the high-performing teams was very similar to the original Gottman ratio for marriages. We tend to think that our personal relationships and our business relationships are very different, but at least on this dimension, not so much. The takeaway, for both leaders and peers, is simple: If you want to be part of a high-performing team, pay attention to how much praise and positivity you’re doling out. If your ratio is below 5:1, you may be damaging the effectiveness of your team.

More from Gail Golden MBA, Ph.D.
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