Education Opinion

School Culture and Relationships Thrive with a 5:1 Positivity Ratio

By Tom Vander Ark — January 23, 2017 2 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

By Mary Ryerse

Leaders, teachers, coaches, parents and friends all wrestle with how to create a positive and a productive environment at home, at school and everywhere in between. We naturally seek positive cultures, and we also want to get work done (and we want our students and our kids to also).

Positive and productive cultures are built one relationship at a time. Yes, leadership, vision, norms and common commitments are of the utmost importance, but daily interactions also shape relationships and cultures over time.

Turns out, one of the most important components of a relationship is how feedback is provided. Intuitively, we know that feedback can neither be all positive (which could be perceived as fluffy) nor all negative (or if you prefer, constructive). Both are important. The core question then becomes: what is the optimal mix of the two? A study conducted by University of Michigan and shared via Harvard Business Review sheds some light on the topic.

Their conclusion on the optimal mix? A 5:1 ratio of positive to negative feedback.

In the Michigan study, the overall effectiveness of strategic business leadership teams was measured based on customer satisfaction, financial performance and 360-degree feedback ratings of team members.

Teasing out what distinguished high performing teams from low performing teams, the number 1 factor was the ratio of positive comments (e.g. “Great idea,” “I agree”) to negative comments (e.g. “That’s not worthy of consideration,” “I disagree,” or sarcasm).

Positive to negative feedback ratios were as follows:

  • High performing teams 5.6 : 1
  • Medium performing teams 1.9 : 1
  • Low-performing teams 0.36 : 1

Common sense tells us we shouldn’t blindly say “yes” or “great job” to everything. According to the Harvard Business Review, here’s why strategic negative feedback is also key:

A little negative feedback goes a long way. It is an essential part of the mix. Why is that? First, because of its ability to grab someone’s attention. Think of it as a whack on the side of the head. Second, certainly, negative feedback guards against complacency and groupthink."

Psychologist and best-selling leadership expert Henry Cloud personalizes this concept even further in his book The Power of the Other, asserting that the 5:1 ratio applies from the boardroom to the bedroom and beyond.

Building upon the rule of 5:1, here are 5 tips to improve relationships in a way that contributes to creating a positive culture:

1. Recognize the importance of relationship. Want to improve overall satisfaction? The unparalleled Grant Harvard research study followed 268 men for 75 years, and emphatically concluded that relationships are the strongest predictor of life satisfaction. Not surprisingly, the strength of relationships at work has been linked with numerous positive organizational outcomes – everything from sick days to organizational performance. The primacy of relationships is particularly evident in a school environment. 2. Build on strengths. The science of well-being points to the importance of building upon and reinforcing strengths. Focusing on strengths also helps gives substance to the positivity ratio. Cincinnati-based Mayerson Academy takes a strengths-based approach to designing learning experiences for improved culture and performance. Mayerson is collaborating with school districts across the country—along with Happify and the VIA Institute on Character—to build upon the science of character strengths and well-being. Mayerson’s innovative, blended and game-based strategies were recently featured in EdWeek. President Jillian Darwish reflects: “We work with school and classroom leaders to establish a strengths-based culture that supports the development of social emotional learning competencies which we know will catalyze the best possible environment for all learners.” 3. Take time to listen. It’s true that relationships take time – a precious commodity in the busy life of a school community. With little time to engage, every interaction matters. Small adjustments can make big differences. Molly Roeske, Principal at Lake Middle School, says “In my experience of building relationships with students, families and staff over the years, I have learned that everyone mostly wants to ‘be heard.’ It seems so simplistic, but being a good listener has allowed others to talk freely and share concerns and celebrations. Giving others an opportunity to express themselves, without interruption, has proven to be a successful leadership strategy.” 4. Laugh. According to the Mayo Clinic, laughter has numerous benefits, including stimulating organs, soothing tension, boosting the immune system and improving mood. Would your meetings and interactions feel different if you they included a shared laugh? 5. Engage in a challenge. Who doesn’t love a challenge? While serving as a classroom teacher, Bonnie Lathram created a “Be Nice” challenge, creating a fun way for her students to be part of teams that “competed” to provide more genuine, positive comments than negative ones.

Mayerson Academy is currently offering the “5 to Thrive” (#5toThrive) Challenge, encouraging learning leaders to dedicate five minutes each day over the next month to engage in simple activities that will reframe thinking and improve school culture. Mayerson Academy is also offering a free toolkit to support this challenge.

The 5 to 1 ratio sets a great standard, but leaders should still be careful that it doesn’t get distorted. In addition to being a passionate educator, I am a mom of three boys. In the midst of writing this blog, one of our sons came up to me and rattled off, “Hi Mom, I like your hair, I like your eyes, I like your shirt, I like your shoes….and your socks, too. Can I please get a pet fish?”

The ratio was good, but, as with all relationships, sincerity matters too.

The opinions expressed in Vander Ark on Innovation are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Student Well-Being Webinar
Attendance Awareness Month: The Research Behind Effective Interventions
More than a year has passed since American schools were abruptly closed to halt the spread of COVID-19. Many children have been out of regular school for most, or even all, of that time. Some
Content provided by AllHere
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
School & District Management Webinar
Ensuring Continuity of Learning: How to Prepare for the Next Disruption
Across the country, K-12 schools and districts are, again, considering how to ensure effective continuity of learning in the face of emerging COVID variants, politicized debates, and more. Learn from Alexandria City Public Schools superintendent
Content provided by Class

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Schools Get the Brunt of Latest COVID Wave in South Carolina
In the past few weeks, South Carolina has set records for COVID-19 hospitalizations and new cases have approached peak levels of last winter.
4 min read
Two Camden Elementary School students in masks listen as South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster talks about steps the school is taking to fight COVID-19, Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021, in Camden, S.C. McMaster has adamantly and repeatedly come out against requiring masks in schools even as the average number of daily COVID-19 cases in the state has risen since early June. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)
Education More States Are Requiring Schools to Teach Native American History and Culture
Advocates say their efforts have gained some momentum with the nation’s reckoning over racial injustice since the killing of George Floyd.
3 min read
A dancer participates in an intertribal dance at Schemitzun on the Mashantucket Pequot Reservation in Mashantucket, Conn., Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021. Connecticut and a handful of other states have recently decided to mandate students be taught about Native American culture and history. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
Education Judge's Temporary Order Allows Iowa Schools to Mandate Masks
A federal judge ordered the state to immediately halt enforcement of a law that prevents school boards from ordering masks to be worn.
4 min read
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks to reporters following a news conference, Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, in West Des Moines, Iowa. Reynolds lashed out at President Joe Biden Thursday after he ordered his education secretary to explore possible legal action against states that have blocked school mask mandates and other public health measures meant to protect students against COVID-19. Reynolds, a Republican, has signed a bill into law that prohibits school officials from requiring masks, raising concerns as delta variant virus cases climb across the state and schools resume classes soon. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Education Hurricane Ida Deals New Blow to Louisiana Schools Struggling to Reopen
The opening of the school year offered teachers a chance to fully assess the pandemic's effects, only to have students forced out again.
8 min read
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021. Louisiana students, who were back in class after a year and a half of COVID-19 disruptions kept many of them at home, are now missing school again after Hurricane Ida. A quarter-million public school students statewide have no school to report to, though top educators are promising a return is, at most, weeks away, not months.
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021.
John Locher/AP