Remember the old saying “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me”? That saying never struck me as being true. I’ve observed that most people are bothered by critical or negative remarks. It just seems to be human nature.

A recent Harvard Business Review blog post, entitled “A Little Criticism Goes a Long Way,” described a study on business team performance. The study showed that:

  • Top performing teams received 5.6 positive comments for each negative comment.
  • Medium performing teams received 1.9 positive comments for each negative comment.
  • Low performing teams received 0.36 positive comments for each negative comment.  

Thus, top performing teams received 15.5 more positive comments than low performing teams. When it comes to motivating people, it appears that the carrot is by far the superior tool.

Here are some ways to improve your praise-to-criticism ratio:

  1. Make a conscious decision to work with positive people at least 50 to 80 percent of the time. I remember asking a very successful advisor, when he reached age 65, “What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned in your 40-year career?” His reply? “I don’t have to deal with people I don’t like.” My advice: Don’t wait until you’re 65 to make this decision for yourself.
  2. Make a conscious decision to accentuate the positive, both in terms of what you focus on personally and how you react with others. When you experience the beneficial results from maintaining a high praise-to-criticism ratio, you’ll find your efforts to be very worthwhile.

When dealing with your team, remember that words can hurt—as well as lead to a lower overall performance.

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Nick Ray is a business coach who specializes in working with financial services professionals. He is the author of There’s More to Selling than Making the Sale as well as a workbook on target marketing. He can be reached at nick@coachnickray.com.