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School Culture and Relationships Thrive with a 5:1 Positivity Ratio

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By Mary Ryerse

Leaders, teachers, coaches, parents and friends all wrestle with how to create a positive and a productive environment at home, at school and everywhere in between. We naturally seek positive cultures, and we also want to get work done (and we want our students and our kids to also).

Positive and productive cultures are built one relationship at a time. Yes, leadership, vision, norms and common commitments are of the utmost importance, but daily interactions also shape relationships and cultures over time.

Turns out, one of the most important components of a relationship is how feedback is provided. Intuitively, we know that feedback can neither be all positive (which could be perceived as fluffy) nor all negative (or if you prefer, constructive). Both are important. The core question then becomes: what is the optimal mix of the two? A study conducted by University of Michigan and shared via Harvard Business Review sheds some light on the topic.

Their conclusion on the optimal mix? A 5:1 ratio of positive to negative feedback.

In the Michigan study, the overall effectiveness of strategic business leadership teams was measured based on customer satisfaction, financial performance and 360-degree feedback ratings of team members.

Teasing out what distinguished high performing teams from low performing teams, the number 1 factor was the ratio of positive comments (e.g. “Great idea,” “I agree”) to negative comments (e.g. “That’s not worthy of consideration,” “I disagree,” or sarcasm).

Positive to negative feedback ratios were as follows:

  • High performing teams 5.6 : 1
  • Medium performing teams 1.9 : 1
  • Low-performing teams 0.36 : 1

Common sense tells us we shouldn’t blindly say “yes” or “great job” to everything. According to the Harvard Business Review, here’s why strategic negative feedback is also key:

"A little negative feedback goes a long way. It is an essential part of the mix. Why is that? First, because of its ability to grab someone’s attention. Think of it as a whack on the side of the head. Second, certainly, negative feedback guards against complacency and groupthink."

Psychologist and best-selling leadership expert Henry Cloud personalizes this concept even further in his book The Power of the Other, asserting that the 5:1 ratio applies from the boardroom to the bedroom and beyond.

Building upon the rule of 5:1, here are 5 tips to improve relationships in a way that contributes to creating a positive culture:

1. Recognize the importance of relationship. Want to improve overall satisfaction? The unparalleled Grant Harvard research study followed 268 men for 75 years, and emphatically concluded that relationships are the strongest predictor of life satisfaction. Not surprisingly, the strength of relationships at work has been linked with numerous positive organizational outcomes – everything from sick days to organizational performance. The primacy of relationships is particularly evident in a school environment.

2. Build on strengths. The science of well-being points to the importance of building upon and reinforcing strengths. Focusing on strengths also helps gives substance to the positivity ratio.

Cincinnati-based Mayerson Academy takes a strengths-based approach to designing learning experiences for improved culture and performance. Mayerson is collaborating with school districts across the country—along with Happify and the VIA Institute on Character—to build upon the science of character strengths and well-being. Mayerson’s innovative, blended and game-based strategies were recently featured in EdWeek.

President Jillian Darwish reflects: “We work with school and classroom leaders to establish a strengths-based culture that supports the development of social emotional learning competencies which we know will catalyze the best possible environment for all learners.”

3. Take time to listen. It’s true that relationships take time – a precious commodity in the busy life of a school community. With little time to engage, every interaction matters. Small adjustments can make big differences.

Molly Roeske, Principal at Lake Middle School, says “In my experience of building relationships with students, families and staff over the years, I have learned that everyone mostly wants to ‘be heard.’ It seems so simplistic, but being a good listener has allowed others to talk freely and share concerns and celebrations. Giving others an opportunity to express themselves, without interruption, has proven to be a successful leadership strategy.”

4. Laugh. According to the Mayo Clinic, laughter has numerous benefits, including stimulating organs, soothing tension, boosting the immune system and improving mood. Would your meetings and interactions feel different if you they included a shared laugh?

5. Engage in a challenge. Who doesn’t love a challenge? While serving as a classroom teacher, Bonnie Lathram created a “Be Nice” challenge, creating a fun way for her students to be part of teams that “competed” to provide more genuine, positive comments than negative ones.

Mayerson Academy is currently offering the “5 to Thrive” (#5toThrive) Challenge, encouraging learning leaders to dedicate five minutes each day over the next month to engage in simple activities that will reframe thinking and improve school culture. Mayerson Academy is also offering a free toolkit to support this challenge.

The 5 to 1 ratio sets a great standard, but leaders should still be careful that it doesn’t get distorted. In addition to being a passionate educator, I am a mom of three boys. In the midst of writing this blog, one of our sons came up to me and rattled off, “Hi Mom, I like your hair, I like your eyes, I like your shirt, I like your shoes….and your socks, too. Can I please get a pet fish?”

The ratio was good, but, as with all relationships, sincerity matters too.

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