The Rewarding Discipline of Positive Leadership


“Doesn’t being so positive with people end up meaning that you’re denying reality?”  

I was asked this at a Women’s Executive Leadership program at the Haas Business School at Berkeley last week.  She was responding to my challenge: great relationships tilt heavily positive, so if you want to lead well, get positive! I was sharing the evidence from two different domains – business research on team-effectiveness and research on positivity in marital relations.  It turns out that approximately 5 positive comments to 1 critical comment characterize the most effective business teams as well as the strongest marriages.*

I noted that this research is both counter-intuitive!!! and it sets such a high behavioral bar!!!  As to intuition:  our minds come factory-loaded with an idea of “balance,” and 5:1 seems so wildly out of balance. Even in HR supervision courses, we learn about giving 2:1 feedback through which we offer a compliment, then the criticism, then another compliment (sometimes jokingly referred to as the sh-t sandwich).  But FIVE to one? Do people really reach that bar?  And to my interrogator’s question from which this blog began:  Doesn’t that require denying reality to find 5 “good” for every single “bad”?

Her question absolutely BEGS the question: “Well, what is reality?”  No, I’m not smoking pot nor getting totally esoteric for a Monday morning missive!!!  My point is that “reality” is hardly so objective.  For example, I can focus on my sore throat, and it is part of reality. But I can also or instead focus on the fact that there are amazing antibodies at work in my system that are healing me.  Is one any more a part of reality? Take a second example:  If you have come to believe your co-worker is lazy, what the psychologists call “confirmation bias” will lead you to see only those “real” behaviors which confirm that belief.


My answer to the woman’s question with which I introduced this column is this:  You can ask whether you’re being “unrealistic, but only after you have really practiced the discipline of paying attention to the positive parts of reality!  Look for them like you used to look for “what’s wrong with this picture” in a Highlights magazine when you were a kid.  Take your challenging kid or problematic boss or annoying spouse and actively look for what they do well, because they do do things well! (And if you don’t believe me, it’s a sure sign your confirmation bias is distorting what you think is the full reality).  Break out a list and find every good thing they are and they do.  Start to thank and acknowledge them.  See what it does to YOU, but also, see if it doesn’t start to change what they show to you.

Practice the discipline of seeing the positive first, and then later we can talk about whether by doing so you are totally obscuring reality.

Or, don’t :-).

If you choose — and it is a choice — to believe you are seeing “objectively,” then fine:   Believe you are objectively seeing reality, but Know that you are heightening your dissatisfaction by seeing what makes you miserable, and you are running against the research grain that seeing (and saying) 5:1 positive will generate optimal results. 

See it and say it, to

Lead with your best self.


* For the business research, see for example Zenger and Folkman, “The Ideal Praise-to-Criticism-Ratio,”  at And for the research on marriage, see a summary of John Gottman’s work at