Magic Ratios . . .

It’s math time again and we are learning about triangles, angles, areas and other proportions.  One of the most interesting proportions is the magic ratio:  1.618.  If you remember reading The DaVinci Code, it shows up in the Fibonacci series of numbers (0,1,1,2,3,5,8,13,21,34,55, 89,…) and in DaVinci’s painting of the Mona Lisa.  In the real world the magic ratio is found in the geometry of the Parthenon and in the construction of the Great Pyramid of Khufu.  The Magic Ratio is also very evident in nature; in the swirls of seeds in a sunflower, in the spirals of a nautilus seashell, and the angles of the alternating stems in many plants.

Recently, a new set of Magic Ratios has been proposed for human interactions and relationships.  Scientists and psychologists have explored the impact of the ratio of positive-to-negative interactions at work and in personal relationships. The need for a ratio is based on the realization that one negative statement or interaction carries a higher “emotional charge” than one positive statement or interaction.  As a result it takes several positive statements to balance out a single negative.  In conducting research scientists found the ratio between positive and negative interactions can predict—with remarkable accuracy— such human relationship issues as marriage success.

Psychologist John Gottman explored positive-to-negative ratios in marriages. Using a 5:1 ratio (5 positives to 1 negative), which Gottman dubbed ‘the magic ratio,’ he and his colleagues studied 700 newlywed couples by scoring their positive and negative interactions in one 15-minute conversation between each husband and wife. Ten years later, the follow-up revealed they had predicted which couples would stay together and which would divorce with 94 percent accuracy.  (I don’t know about you but I’m feeling pretty guilty at the moment)

Recent studies on successful people and of teams within organizations show a similar set of ratios.  For successful people, it’s 3:1; that is, they talk about positive things three times as often as negative.  For executive teams that execute well, it’s 6:1.

What’s the ratio of positive to negative interactions among your leadership team?  What’s the ratio at staff meetings?  How many negative comments do you hear about “other people” during a conversation?

Negative comments have been ingrained into most business people by the relentless focus on problems (what’s not working) in order to improve the business.  MBAs know this technique as “management by exception“, and it is an efficient use of time: don’t worry about things that are working well, find and fix the problems.

The difficulty with this habitual way of behaving is that people are not business processes!  Only focusing on what’s wrong with a person or their work is a poor way to improve them.  First of all, you can’t fix another person.  People are their own change agents!  And secondly it’s not very motivating to only hear what you are doing wrong. People need to hear what they are doing right; it’s more motivating.  Think about the 6:1 ratio.  How motivating would that be?

Negative interactions and talking negatively about others takes more of a toll on your leadership team and corporate culture than you realize.  And with the fast pace of business today and the flood of new competition, we need our teams and employees to be in top form.

Here’s a good exercise:  keep a log for an entire day of the ratio of positive to negative comments or interactions you observe at work.  You might be surprised, and a little shocked.

My Mom used to always say:

If you can’t say something nice about someone, don’t say anything at all.

Tight Lines . . .

About johnrchildress

John Childress is a pioneer in the field of strategy execution, culture change, executive leadership and organization effectiveness, author of several books and numerous articles on leadership, an effective public speaker and workshop facilitator for Boards and senior executive teams. In 1978 John co-founded The Senn-Delaney Leadership Consulting Group, the first international consulting firm to focus exclusively on culture change, leadership development and senior team alignment. Between 1978 and 2000 he served as its President and CEO and guided the international expansion of the company. His work with senior leadership teams has included companies in crisis (GPU Nuclear – owner of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plants following the accident), deregulated industries (natural gas pipelines, telecommunications and the breakup of The Bell Telephone Companies), mergers and acquisitions and classic business turnaround scenarios with global organizations from the Fortune 500 and FTSE 250 ranks. He has designed and conducted consulting engagements in the US, UK, Europe, Middle East, Africa, China and Asia. Currently John is an independent advisor to CEO’s, Boards, management teams and organisations on strategy execution, corporate culture, leadership team effectiveness, business performance and executive development. John was born in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon and eventually moved to Carmel Highlands, California during most of his business career. John is a Phi Beta Kappa scholar with a BA degree (Magna cum Laude) from the University of California, a Masters Degree from Harvard University and was a PhD candidate at the University of Hawaii before deciding on a career as a business entrepreneur in the mid-70s. In 1968-69 he attended the American University of Beirut and it was there that his interest in cultures, leadership and group dynamics began to take shape. John Childress resides in London and the south of France with his family and is an avid flyfisherman, with recent trips to Alaska, the Amazon River, Tierra del Fuego, and Kamchatka in the far east of Russia. He is a trustee for Young Virtuosi, a foundation to support talented young musicians. You can reach John at or
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