Magic Ratios, Part Two . . .

 I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.  – Robert McCloskey

As you may recall in an earlier post I wrote about the magic ratio (1.618) in mathematics (Fibonacci series), art, architecture and nature.  I also alluded to some little known (at least to me) research being done on another set of magic ratios, the relationship of positive to negative interactions between human beings.

I am becoming more and more captivated by the research of Professor Marcial Losada and his colleagues on the ratio of positive to negative interactions among teams.  His research is putting some quantitative science behind the techniques I have been using for the past 30 years in improving team performance.

Dr. Losada found three critical bipolar variables at work in a team.  The first is the ratio of Positive to Negative dialogue that takes place.  Healthy, high performing teams have a ratio of P/N > 3.0.  An interesting corollary is that above a ratio of 11, the team seems to break down, and understandably so since with this ratio it’s all good news (positive, positive, positive) and as we all have experienced in our lives, when you only get positive feedback it’s easy to become suspicious and mistrusting.  We need and require constructive feedback to fulfill our human desire to improve.

The second variable at work within teams is the ratio of Inquiry (asking) to Advocacy (telling), which in high performing teams is I/A > 1.0.  In my experience the real trick here is not asking questions, but how you ask them.  When a person is genuinely interested in learning about how the other person sees the world (or in the case of a team how they see the problem), it opens up genuine dialogue and deep listening (what I call listening for understanding).

The third variable is the ratio of focus on Others vs Self.  Again to have a high functioning team the ratio is O/S> 1.0.  People in a team who are only concerned with their own self interests can easily work at odds with the overall team objective.  Besides, they are quite boring to be around.

Now, in case you think these numbers and formulas are too academic and not real world, one of his recent articles on improving team performance concerned four work teams in a global mining company.   This is not a white collar management team, this is the dusty, hot work of pit mining, with manual laborers, not knowledge workers.  All four teams scored poorly on all business performance metrics, including safety.  Losada identified the four teams as having Positive to Negative (P/N) ratios of 1.25, 1.17, 1.14 and 1.07 respectively.

After a series of communication and team dynamics training the scores moved to 3.94, 3.15, 3.42 and 3.72.   Overall team performance on important business metrics rose significantly.  And the scores were taken 3-6 months after the last training, showing real sustainability.

The words of the mining CEO say much more than the numbers:

The team experimented a notable transformation. You untied knots that imprisoned us: today we look at each other differently, we trust each other more, we learned to disagree without being disagreeable. We care not only about our personal success, but also about the success of others. Most importantly, we obtain tangible results. There are a few landmarks in one’s life; this meta learning training was one of them.

While these team performance concepts have always been part of my senior team alignment workshops, they will now have an even more importance role in improving the alignment and performance of senior teams.

We change through conversation.

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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