Ignoring People can be Worse than Criticizing

From my years of working as a consutant, trainer and coach I am a firm believer in positive reinforcement.  I have guestimated many positive comments it would take for a manager to offset one negative or critical comment to be 5.  I constantly encourage executives that I coach to keep this ratio in mind in their day to day interactions.  This is not breaking news and we have all heard this all before.  So why am I writing about something so obvious?

It hit me like a ton of bricks on page 51 of Tom Rath’s bestselling book, How Full is Your Bucket.  Here is a guy who is the grandson of the late Dr. Donald Clifton, Ph.D–cited by the American Psychological Association as the “Grandfather of Positive Psychology.”   Instead of studying what was wrong with people, Dr. Clifton studied what was right.

Anyways, back to the main point.  Tom Rath’s book, How Full is your Bucket, clearly quantifies the impact positive reinforcement has on people based on 50 years of Dr. Clifton’s research.  On pages 50-51 he reports on a study conducted by Dr. Elizabeth Hurlock with students in a 6th grade math class and how the students who were praised solved more math problems than the students who were criticized.  Again, we have all heard this before….but here is where the story takes an unexpected turn…

The fact is, there were actually 3 groups of students in this study—the praised, the criticized, and the ignored! This graph from page 51 shows that students that were ignored actually showed the lowest level of improvement and solved the lowest number of problems–even lower than the criticized group.


This fact hit me like a ton of bricks.  I have been told countless times by executives that they are not critical of their employees and are not able to understand why productivity is down.  The truth is they are not praising, they are not criticizing—they are ignoring—which based on this study yields the lowest return.

I am not trying to send the message that if we are ignoring now we should kick it up a notch and start criticizing to yield a higher return.  What I am saying is not critizing does not equal praise but rather it equals ignoring.  Not praising does not equal criticizing but rather it equals ignoring.  The only way to win here is to praise.  I have never had one single person complain about an executive giving too much praise so it shows most of us have room to maximize our potential in this area.

I had a dentist tell me once that one of the secrets to the success of his practice is that he takes the time every day to make small talk with his staff.  He explained that when he does this his staff is more happy and productive.  He also looks for daily events to praise them for both individually and at staff meetings.  When he gets busy or sidetracked from this habit he starts to realize it because his office productivity goes down and members of his staff start to beg for his attention in various ways.  In the end, it costs him more time and wasted productivity not to take the few minutes a day to acknowledge and praise.

Let’s all keep this in mind as we go throughout our day. If we notice a drop in productivity, we need to ask ourselves, has my lack of praise, too much critisizm or ignoring people contributed to this decline?  For some of us this is a non-issue becuase we naturally praise.  For others of us, it is not natural and more like sticking to a strict diet—it is easy to backslide.  Let’s make praising a habit and a natural part of our company’s cuture.

It would be interesting for our readers to hear, what are some ways you acknowledge and show praise to people?

Go here to hear Tom Rath , an excellent communicator, talk more about interaction ratios or how every interaction counts

By |August 6th, 2007|Management|