Positive vs negative strokes – what’s more effective?

An important question for any leader. 

To write this article I reflected on my own journey and asked myself how I reacted to positive and negative feedback in the past.

Two examples sprang to mind. One was in my coach training – a long time back. It was on my last module of a year-long coaching programme. Each participant was asked to give positive feedback to a number of other participants about their impact over the course of the year-long training. I remember being super emotional about the overwhelming positive strokes I got. I felt seen, recognised and big. It helped me acknowledge and own my strengths. And with the benefit of hindsight I’d say those strokes played a huge role in me becoming my more powerful self.

Looking at the negative strokes, I remember training to become accredited to deliver a programme. I got some positive feedback coupled with huge amounts of critical and developmental feedback – all well intentioned. ‘Here’s what you need to change, here’s how you need to say that, here’s what you are doing wrong, here’s how you are not measuring up right now.’ I remember how it made me feel. I felt weak, self-conscious, defensive and unable to integrate the learning as quickly as I normally would. Was it helpful. Yes, I learned a lot but I wonder whether I could have learned more and had a more pleasant experience via the strokes route.

The strokes route

You tell people what they are doing right, what’s working right now, where they are excelling. Then you ask them what they are noticing about their own behaviour or situation? So, if it was a report someone did for you. You could let them know what you liked about the report, what stood out for you. Then you might ask them what they notice about the report. How would they rate the report on a scale of 1 to 10. What would it take to get it closer to 10? Anything else they notice? Once you’ve heard their perspective you might feel there are some things they haven’t picked up but you have. You could ask whether they’d like to hear your observations and comments. I call this piece contracting. People are more willing to accept and integrate your negative strokes if they asked for them.

Eric Berne, the founder of transactional analysis coined the phrase ‘strokes’. A stroke is a form of recognition, positive or negative. As humans we crave these. We grow and thrive when we get positive strokes, feel defensive and often hurt when we get negative ones, and hate it when we don’t get any strokes at all.

As with so many things in life, our upbringing shapes what strokes are familiar to us. If we grew up with a load of negative strokes, chances are we will seek them and give them out. And, as with most of our conditioned responses, once you are aware, you can choose to change your behaviour.

What’s your reaction when someone asks you for feedback? Do you think “I’ll let them know what’s good about them”? Or the opposite? What if someone asks you whether you’d like some feedback? Would you expect them to offer you positive or negative strokes? In my experience we often associate the word feedback with negative strokes. If you are looking for positive strokes, you have to ask for them specifically, eg by asking “what did you like about that?”

Negative feedback makes us feel vulnerable, criticised and potentially defensive. It triggers our fight or flight mechanism; we want to run away or attack. Negative strokes hurt. Why then do we do it so regularly? It’s become an integral part of most businesses. It’s meant to help us improve and develop. But does it?  

There are stats on the balance of positive to negative strokes. One of these says that a high performing person can handle and integrate one negative stroke for every five positive strokes. So if you are a high performing and confident person you can take one critical comment provided you got five positive comments before that. If you are a normal performer, you can only handle one critical comment for every nine positive comments.

My own experience as an executive coach and facilitator is that the ratio needs to be even higher. We need to trust the person who is giving us the negative strokes to do so because they truly think it is in our best interest. Then we can take it. The quality of the relationships we have dictates to what extent we are able to take and integrate developmental feedback.

In my work with teams I often detect a nervousness around feedback. People don’t feel safe. They are scared of being ‘shot down’ in front of their colleagues. My first job is often to create a safe space – trust grows so that feedback can become effective.  

You might ask what does a positive stroke look like. Here are some options for positive strokes

-       Really listening to someone actively

-       Asking them questions that help you understand them better

-       Saying something positive about them

-       Smiling, nodding, touching, etc

Negative strokes could take the form of

-       Talking over someone, ignoring, dismissing what they had to say

-       Saying something negative about them

-       Frowning, shaking your head, ignoring, making dismissive gestures, etc.

Which would you rather receive – positive or negative strokes? And, which would you rather give?