The Magic Ratio: Finding A Positive Balance

I recently listened to an interview of A. J. Jacobs, a self-described author, journalist, lecturer, and human guinea pig, on the Tim Ferriss Show. Much of their discussion revolved around Jacob’s numerous books and the preparation/torture he put himself through to write them. Some of these books are:  Drop Dead Healthy, My Life as an Experiment, and The Year of Living Biblically.

It was what he said about The Year of Living Biblically that especially caught my attention. Ferriss mentioned to Jacobs that of all the books he’s written, it was this book that impacted him the most. He qualified his statement by saying that he had developed an “allergy” to organized religion from an early age and admitted that he knew very little about Judaism. Even so, Ferriss had learned a great deal from Jacobs’ book and was interested in various aspects of his experiment.

One such interest was that of being thankful. This is obviously not a foreign concept to most people. We have an entire holiday dedicated to being thankful for goodness sake! However, the type of thankfulness that Jacobs is referring to is somewhat more intentional. He states that in Ecclesiastes, the Bible says that we should be thankful and say prayers of thanksgiving for all things. A. J. took this literally. So every time he entered an elevator, he would be thankful that it didn’t plummet into the basement. Each and every event, no matter how minuscule, was recognized as a blessing and accepted with thanks. Even though this was a particularly time-consuming way to live, Jacobs found a tremendous underlying gratitude beginning to develop.

It was when Jacobs began to realize that there were literally hundreds of little things going right in his life every single day that his perspective began to shift. In a typical day he might focus on the few things that went wrong. But now he could see, and appreciate, the larger picture of his experiences. The negative no longer overshadowed the positive…it couldn’t. The “right” in his life was too pervasive for the “wrong” to gain a substantial foothold. How profound this is, that a simple recognition of the positives in one’s day can bring them a marked increase in happiness and well-being.

The stark reality of being aware of the positive in our life can (and should) translate directly to our career in coaching or business. Here’s my proof…the Harvard Business Review published an article a few years ago that touched on the topic of the ideal praise-to-criticism ratio. The ideal praise-to-criticism ratio? Yes, that is actually a thing.

The interesting phenomenon discussed in the article is that there have been two independent studies on this topic and both produced similar findings. The first of these studies was done by John Gottman, a psychologist, who examined this balance of positive to negative comments in married couples. He and his colleagues spent 15-minutes with 700 newlywed couples. By using the “magic ratio” of 5:1 positive-to-negative comments, they were able to predict with 94% accuracy who would be divorced after 10 years. Amazing how powerful this ratio can be.

But maybe you need something more team oriented. Emily Heaphy and Marcela Losada conducted a study called The Role of Positivity and Connectivity in the Performance of Business Teams. This study investigated the effectiveness of 60 strategic-business-unit leadership teams at a large information-processing company. What they found was that the highest performing teams averaged a ratio of 5.6 to 1. That’s nearly six positive comments for every negative one. But what about the medium and low performing teams? How did they do? The medium-performers averaged 1.9 to 1, and the low-performers ranged from .36:1 to 1:1 positive/negative comments. To be clear, the lowest performing teams averaged almost three negative comments for every positive one.

If you are building a team, whether in business, at church, or in sports, it’s imperative to notice the positive. My assumption is that if we begin to be more acutely aware of the positive in our own lives, we’ll begin to notice what’s going right in our teams. We’ll move closer to that magic ratio of 5:1 because we recognize that life is predominately good and things aren’t all bad. We can begin to appreciate our players to a much greater extent because we see all the constructive things they are doing for their teammates. And, as leadership goes, the more positive and appreciative we are as coaches, the more our team members will recognize the positives in those they work with. It’s a feedback loop that can generate tangible results and a more enjoyable work environment.

Imagine if we began to really acknowledge all the good that happens in our life each day. What would that mean? Would we be more appreciative of those around us? Would we be more enjoyable to be with? Would we be better leaders? Think about the ripple effect it would have on those that follow our direction. Would they feel more inspired? Would they reflect the positivity that they see in their coach/boss/pastor? Would we all reach greater heights as a result?

I don’t know the answers for sure. But wouldn’t it be a more enjoyable ride for everyone if we saw the positives in our own lives and in the lives of those around us?

By the way, I’m thankful that you chose to read this article.


This Post Has One Comment

  1. I m glad you ve found your balance with socializing at such a young age! It does require some experimenting, as you ve done. And I agree that the Myers Briggs type indicator can be a great resource for understanding yourself better. It also comes in handy when trying to comprehend other s behaviors!

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