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Motivation Insight: Learn to Apply the Four to One Rule

Well delivered and thoughtful praise can deliver the energy that pushes a team to great performance. Likewise, careless criticism and correction offered without balance can kill a team. Effective leaders learn to choose the right words — either positive or negative  — for every situation.

Many of my clients are in significant leadership roles.  They generally come to me because they want outside perspective to help them grow as  leaders or to improve their team environment. Some are not yet leaders.  They want to develop leadership skills in preparation for advancement. Awhile back, one of my clients in the second category had an experience that almost destroyed a good working relationship. Leaders and prospective leaders everywhere can learn from his experience.

He is a hard-working, driving leader.  He fully devotes his energy to his work.  He gives extra time to make sure that he is a positive contribution to his organization. And, like most people, he has some blind-spots and imperfections.

Overall, he brings far more positive influence than negative energy to his team. Still, he found himself on the receiving end of a disciplinary discussion with his supervisor.

In reality, every story has two sides, and this one is no different. His supervisor had a perfectly valid point, but it grew to be far more negative than necessary because of the way his supervisor presented it to him. In just a moment, I will describe the employee side of the issue and how that perspective impacts team performance.

Aubrey Daniels, a highly respected behavioral analyst and author, states that high-level team and individual performance only comes as the result of positive reinforcement (praise, rewards, time-off, etc). Anything negative (punishment, penalty, criticism, correction, etc) will, at best,  create “minimal effort.” The reasoning and data to support this statement lies beyond the scope of this article.  You can read more on the topic in Bringing Out the Best in People by Aubrey Daniels or Whale Done by Ken Blanchard.

“Positive reinforcement generates more behavior than is minimally required. We call this discretionary effort, and its presence in the workplace is the only way an organization can maximize performance.”

— Aubrey Daniels, Bringing Out the Best in People

For now, I’m focusing on only one issue. Aubrey Daniels calls it the 4:1 Rule. This rule says that most people need to receive a minimum of  four positive inputs on their behavior for every one negative input — if they are going to focus on and respond to the positive consequences and give “maximal effort.”

Very few leaders move smoothly through their careers without having to discuss negative performance issues with their team members. Sadly, many leaders fail in this effort when they confront negative issues in a formal and threatening manner and then do little or nothing to recognize the counterbalancing positive contributions of the employee.

I understand how leaders fall into this trap. I see the same behavior in many situations: parents correcting their children, teachers disciplining students, and supervisors discussing performance issues with employees. The problem might look different in different organizations and contests. And still, regardless of the environment, the outcome comes down to the same root problem — most of us find it easier to notice what people have done wrong than what they have done right.

Getting back to the person mentioned above.

He is committed and dedicated. He works hard. He produces results. And, he has a persistent negative behavior trait — a trait he was already working to improve upon.

The first time his supervisor mentioned the behavior, they chose to go directly to a formal reprimand without any prior discussions.

When this supervisor mentions positive contributions, they do so casually and informally. The rarely document positive contributions. In this case they went straight to the formal documentary process without so much as a warning.

And, here is the net effect: the employee feels demoralized and devalued. The employee, a person who naturally enjoys contributing new ideas and looking for opportunities to help, now acts with more caution and reservation in his work environment. He is almost totally “shut-down.”

In this case, the supervisor has “motivated” the employee to invest only enough effort to avoid future troubles and confrontations. The employee’s desire to make a major positive contribution is, at least temporarily, gone.

I understand the need to use formal disciplinary processes. However, I do not recommend, except in extreme situations, that leaders implement them at the first sign of a problem.

I recommend that leaders start the process with performance coaching and informal discussion to help the employee see the problem in their behavior. If the behavior is extreme, or if these coaching efforts fail to improve performance; then, leaders should apply more formal approaches (official verbal reprimand, written reprimand, etc.).

Formal approaches tend to feel very negative from the employees perspective no matter how much leaders soften the language they use in delivering the message. When leaders resort to formal approaches too early in the process, they first have to overcome the negative feelings before they can get back on a positive relationship basis.

Leaders must confront negative behaviors, and they must create hope. They should confront negative behavior quickly.  And, they should look for ways to praise and reward positive behaviors as well.

In an ideal world, employees who contribute more positive than negative to an organization will receive at least four positive comments for every one that is negative.

Highly effective leaders consciously work to provide at least four times as many positives as negatives so that they can inspire high level rather than bare minimum performance in the teams that they lead.

“To lead yourself, use your head; to lead others, use your heart.”

— John Maxwell, The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership

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