And now for a word about criticism. In the last episode of this videoblog, I discussed the power of positive feedback and corrective feedback, and how important it is that it be specific, whether it’s reinforcing or corrective. After I posted, I got some feedback myself from Mike Murray, a mentor and friend I’ve known for many years. Mike made a really excellent point.
He said, “Larry, sometimes the behavior to be corrected is the result of the person’s over exercising a strength. Assertive becomes aggressive; self-confident becomes rigid or arrogant; being thorough becomes data overload; adaptable becomes wishy-washy, and etc., etc.”
Mike Is Right About Tempering Criticism
A salesperson who’s very aggressive can be quite successful. Carried too far, however, her aggressiveness can run customers off because they feel like she’s being too pushy. There has to be a balance.
Ironically, the salesperson is probably aware of this aggressive tendency in herself and it is probably something she is proud of because it’s worked for her in the past. If you’re going to ask her to tone down the aggressiveness then, it doesn’t hurt to acknowledge the positive aspects of that tendency.
Mike went on to say, “If the criticism can begin with labeling the strength and then pointing out that it is sometimes over exercised, the recipient’s natural defensiveness can sometimes be reduced or overcome. It also becomes easier for the giver of the feedback (you and me) to say it.” It makes it easier than just talking about what they did bad.
Delivering Criticism Via The Pygmalion Principle
This reminds me of The Pygmalion Principle. Based on a Greek myth about a king named Pygmalion who liked to sculpt. In the story, Pygmalion creates a statue of a beautiful woman named Galatea and then promptly falls in love with her. Pygmalion’s love for Galatea is so intense that Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love brings the statue to life. (This is like Pinocchio with erotic overtones.) Anyway, once Pygmalion gets a real woman, life gets much more complicated and eventually, he wants his statue back. Too bad for Pygmalion.
George Bernard Shaw based his play Pygmalion on this Greek Myth. It was later adapted by Lerner and Loewe into the musical My Fair Lady where Eliza Doolittle, a cockney street urchin (played by Audrey Hepburn in the movie) is tutored by Professor Henry Higgins (played by Rex Harrison) to learn the King’s English and get passed off as a princess. The whole idea is that if you believe intensely enough in someone and you work with them hard enough, you can bring out the best in them.
Pymalion In The Classroom
It was also the title of a series of studies by Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson called Pygmalion In The Classroom where, at the beginning of the school year, they gave fifth and sixth graders a test that was supposed to predict how well the children would improve during the year. Out of each classroom, there were five or six kids who scored highly. Rosenthal and Jacobson gave the names of these students to their teachers. Then, they returned periodically during the year to watch the kids and the teachers interact with the students. And guess what. The teachers interacted more with the kids that had scored high than with those who scored lower. At the end of the year, indeed, the kids who scored highest also improved the most.
This was a very predictive test, right? Wrong! The test was fake. After the researchers gave the kids the test, they threw away results. Instead, they simply put all the kids’ names in a hat, drew out four or five names at random, and gave those names to the teachers. The only difference between those kids and others was in the teachers’ minds. These teachers had higher expectations of these children than they normally would have had and therefore the kids tended to perform better. It reminds me that if you’re going to give somebody corrective feedback, which is risky business anyway, you are wise to recognize their strengths first.
Proof That Positive Feedback Helps With Criticism
In a study by Marcial Losada and Emily Heaphy called “The Role of Positivity and Connectivity in the Performance of Business Teams” Losada and Heaphy went into 60 different business teams within a large high tech organization and observed the leaders interacting with the team members. They identified various manager-team member interactions as being either positive, neutral, or negative. They found that how the leaders interacted with the team members made a difference in business outcomes:
In the highest performing teams, the ratio of positive feedback to criticism was 5.6 to 1 (almost a 6 to 1 ratio)
In mediocre performing teams, the ratio was 1.9 to 1 positive feedback to criticism (almost a 2 to 1 ratio of positive feedback to negative)
In poorly performing teams, the ratio was .36 to 1 to one. (almost a 3 to 1 ratio of negative to positive)
In other words, you get better results when you focus on the positive.
This tells me that it doesn’t hurt to give some positive feedback with any criticism you deliver: to let the receiver know that you do recognize his or her strengths. Now that doesn’t mean that you ignore what needs to be corrected. To do so risks never getting the problem resolved. It just means that things go down easier when you’ve recognized what this person contributes along with where they need to make an improvement. In other words, Mary Poppins was right. A spoonful of sugar does make medicine go down easier.