Management experts say criticism should never be delivered in front of others

Story highlights

Research has found that every criticism from managers should be balanced by six positive comments

Effectiveness of both praise and criticism as motivators has a lot to do with how the message is delivered

Setting the context for negative feedback helps soften the blow

Emotions should be taken out of the equation when delivering negative feedback

CNN  — 

Criticism from bosses can be hard to swallow. But research shows there are more constructive ways for managers to deliver negative feedback, and that bosses should use positive comments a lot more – about six times more – than criticism.

The study, done by the University of Michigan Business School several years ago, compared team performance to the frequency of praise and criticism given within the teams.

The best-performing teams used about six times as many positive comments for every negative one. It found that the worst performing teams, on average, used three negative comments for every positive one.

American psychologist, John Gottman, has found a similar ratio for positive and negative comments from spouses leading to happier marriages.

“Negative interactions tend to dampen the enthusiasm and commitment of the individual,” says Jack Zenger, a leadership consultant, who was not part of the studies. “A manager should be very thoughtful and weigh the risks and benefits before giving any negative feedback.”

While positive feedback seems to be more helpful in the work setting, leadership experts say the effectiveness of both praise and criticism as motivators has a lot to do with how the message is delivered.

Read more: Are you cautious or courageous at work?

When a manager must give negative feedback to a worker, it helps not to do it abruptly, Zenger says. Managers can preface the conversation by letting the employee know that his or her contributions are appreciated, and that a specific suggestion is a way to improve effectiveness and nothing more than that.

“When we watch a movie, there is often background music that signals to us whether something terrible is about to happen or whether this is a happy scene in the movie. Ideally, managers need to provide a similar signal that provides an accurate context for any message,” he says.