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For the Holidays: How About Some Recognition and a Bit of Magic

I was recently taking a flip through the HBR “Talent Issue” and saw the title ‘Motivator-in-Chief’ in reference to Coca-Cola’s CEO. Great title, eh?  I think that we in our field wouldn’t argue that one of a manager’s most important jobs is to motivate his or her team. And I believe/hope that we in HR would consider it amongst our responsibilities to support managers, either through coaching or more formal programs, in motivating their teams.

I also recently came across the “magic ratio” for positive reinforcement (surely, one of the more powerful motivation tools?). In a nutshell, various studies have claimed that the ideal ratio of positive to constructive feedback is 5-to-1. This is true for children in a learning environment, marriages and I’m sure a whole other host of situations, including the workplace.

But I wondered whether it could also apply to our own ‘self-talk’. If we could learn to provide ourselves with 5 positive instances of feedback for every negative one, would our self-esteem, learning capacity and productivity benefit?  Can we increase our capacity for doing good in the world by reminding ourselves that we are indeed good?

Well, I thought I’d give it a shot. And whew, it has been a surprising challenge! I am embarrassed to say that after my first day of trying to monitor my self-talking and see how much was positive and how much was not-so-kind, I didn’t even come close to 5:1.  Is it because I’m a woman? In a profession where I feel I’m always having to prove my worth? A type-A personality who errs on the side of perfectionism?  Regardless, I can’t imagine I’m the only one who is not immune to self-deprecation.

So, day 2 was a bit better. I became slightly more aware of those nasty comments and tried to minimize them. Didn’t quite get there with increasing the positive, but a start is a start, yes?

Day 3 and I am trying to pepper in some good old-fashioned compliments to see how that works. Mostly it feels a bit silly, uncomfortable, maybe not unlike how a manager might feel when he or she starts trying to provide more recognition to direct reports. If it’s not second-nature already, it is going to take some practice. But in the cases of both managing others and managing self, it really is worth the effort.

My goal for the coming days and maybe even months is to practice effective positive feedback – following a description of the behaviour with a link to the outcomes it has or will create.  Moving beyond an ‘atta girl’ to something meaningful so I can connect a specific action with the positive consequence and thus increase the chances that I’ll do it again.

As we lead up to the holiday season when stresses are too numerous to count, I wish you the strength and commitment to be kind to yourself. I encourage you to move beyond the old adage, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it all” (although again, this is a solid start), to “I am doing great things in the world that are making an impact”. You deserve the proverbial pat on the back and who better to give it than you?



  1. Very insightful. I wonder if self-criticism is engrained in our business culture of perfection and ambition? Does it keep us on our toes, or does it end up dragging us (and our morale) down? I, too will make an effort to give myself kudos rather than focussing exclusively on what I would like to change… both at work and in my personal life.

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