For years, organizational psychologist Marcial Losada, PhD, studied the characteristics of high-performing business teams. As part of his work, he designed a meeting room to capture the real-time behavior of business teams in action.
The room resembled any ordinary boardroom, but it was fitted with one-way mirrors and video cameras that allowed research assistants to record every statement during company teams’ hour-long meetings.
In particular, Dr. Losada tracked whether individuals’ statements were:
- Positive or negative
- Self- or other-focused
- Based on inquiry (asking questions) or advocacy (defending a point of view)
By the mid-’90s, 60 different teams had been observed and coded. At the same time, each team’s performance level was identified based on independent data. Twenty-five percent met the criteria for high performance based on three distinct indicators:
- Customer satisfaction ratings
- Evaluations by superiors, peers and subordinates
About 30 percent scored low on all three factors. The rest had mixed profiles. Dr. Losada also rated team behavior on connectivity (how well tuned or responsive members were to one another).
When he later divided the teams into high, low and mixed performance levels, striking differences emerged. High-performance teams stood out by their unusually high positivity-to-negativity ratios: about 6:1. Mixed-performance teams scored ratios of 2:1, while low-performing teams scored 1:1.
High-performing teams also had higher connectivity ratings and an interesting balance on other dimensions. Members asked questions as much as they defended their own views, and they cast their attention outward as much as inward.
Low-performing teams, however, had far lower connectivity, asked almost no questions and showed almost no outward focus.
The positivity/negativity ratio has been found to be a critical parameter in ascertaining what kinds of dynamics are possible for business teams. It is measured by counting the instances of positive feedback (e.g., “that is a good idea”) vs. negative feedback (e.g., “this is not what I expected; I am disappointed”).
Dr. Losada’s findings can be summarized as follows: If a team is highly connected, its members will tend to maintain an equilibrium between internal and external focus, as well as between inquiry and advocacy. They will also maintain a positivity/negativity ratio above 3:1.
If connectivity is low, the team will be more internally focused, it will advocate strongly, and its positivity/negativity ratio will be below 3:1.
In the business teams that I have occasion to work with , I see evidence of mixed performance. Apparently most of us (80 percent) have 2:1 positive-to-negative ratios. That’s a good thing, but not quite enough to produce spectacular results.
I’m doing a lot of coaching around these issues with my clients. The key issues are how to automatically and authentically begin to see the positive in people. What do you think is hard about this?