The Secret to Being a Great Encourager

You've Got to Get this Ratio Right

Encouragement is a simple word with powerful potential. Encouragement improves relationships and raises performance. Encouragement is the coming along side of someone and instilling in them the courage to act when they are stuck.

Two good friends sit down to have lunch and start talking about their work. One of the men expresses concern that his boss never encourages him and maybe he should look for another job. He asks his friend what he thinks he should do. 

The friend pulls out his phone and asks for his boss’s phone number. “Wait a minute,” he says, “what are you going to do?” “Trust me, it will be okay,” the friend says, “just give me the number please.”

He dials the number and when the man’s boss answers he says, “Mr. Johnson, this is Ken Smith. I have long admired your company. I was curious to know if you have a place in your organization for a smart, hard-working, results-oriented sales manager to work with your sales team?” Mr. Johnson politely responds, “Thanks for the inquiry, but I already have one.” Smiling at his friend he says, “Looks like you are all set. Thank you for talking my call Mr. Johnson,” and hangs up.

Should he stay, or should he look for another job? What advice would you give? It really is simple—we do our best work and experience the greatest joy when we are in environments that provide feedback that allow us to learn, grow and contribute. And according to research by Gallup, if encouraging feedback is missing we will leave and seek it elsewhere.

Scott Adams, the creator of “Dilbert,” humorously cuts to the heart of the problem. “Most managers try to trick you into confessing your shortcomings—latching on to those shortcomings like a pit bull on a trespasser’s buttocks. Once documented, your ‘flaws’ will be passed on to each new boss you ever have, serving as justification for low raises for the rest of your life.”

This behavior is not just reserved for the workplace. The absence of encouragement is at the heart of every failing relationship. When it comes to our families the stakes are even higher. The truth is we can always find another job—the physical, emotional, and mental cost of family failure is so much greater.

Research shows encouragement is most effective when the ratio of positive to corrective feedback is five to one. You might call it the “magical encouragement ratio” given what researchers have concluded.

In a business study conducted by Emily Heathy and Marcial Losada, they found that the highest performing work groups consistently shared 5.6 positive comments for ever one corrective comment—medium performing group averaged 1.9:1 and low-performing teams averaged 0.36:1. The teams with the lowest leadership rankings rose on average 33 percentage points, after a year of focusing on improving this ratio.

The same 5 to 1 ratio was found to be the benchmark for couples remaining married in research conducted by John Gottman and published in The Relationship Cure: A 5 Step Guide to Strengthening Your Marriage, Family, and Friendships. The ratio was 0.77:1—or three encouraging comments for every four negative ones for couples who ended up divorced.

Encouragement—we need it, we want it, we don’t get enough of it and we don’t share enough of it.

Great encouragers know the power and effectiveness of encouragement. Put the 5 to 1 ratio to work and you’ll improve your relationships with the people you love and lead.