The Momentum from Small Wins and Catching Young People Doing Something Right

Kara Powell | Jun 21, 2012

In every Psychology class I took in college, we talked about the Zimbardo Experiment. Actually conducted at my undergraduate university, Dr. Philip Zimbardo in 1971 took healthy, normal undergraduates and set up a mock prison. He randomly assigned students as either guards or inmates. In just days, the guards became mean and sadistic and the prisoners became depressed. The experiment had to be stopped early. The lesson? A toxic system can contaminate (and maybe bring out the worst) in people.

The Momentum from Small Wins

In a recent Harvard Business Review blog, the author cited this study and talked about the opposite: a positive system can bring out the best in people. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police, under the leadership of Superintendent Clapham, decided to use positive reinforcement with young people:

Their approach was to try to catch youth doing the right things and give them a Positive Ticket. The ticket granted the recipient free entry to the movies or to a local youth center. They gave out an average of 40,000 tickets per year. That is three times the number of negative tickets over the same period. As it turns out, and unbeknownst to Clapham, that ratio (2.9 positive affects to 1 negative affect, to be precise) is called the Losada Line. It is the minimum ratio of positive to negatives that has to exist for a team to flourish. On higher-performing teams (and marriages for that matter) the ratio jumps to 5:1. But does it hold true in policing?

According to Clapham, youth recidivism was reduced from 60% to 8%. Overall crime was reduced by 40%. Youth crime was cut in half. And it cost one-tenth of the traditional judicial system.

It makes me wonder what ratio of positive to negative comments will best help young people thrive. As parents and leaders, here are a few suggestions for catching young people doing something right:

1. When you see them doing something right, say it. This is pretty obvious but so often we keep our positive thoughts to ourselves.

2. When you see an adult doing something right, say it in front of a young person. Let teenagers see you being positive around others.

3. When you’re working with a young person to change something in their life, capitalize on the momentum of small wins. One of the themes in our Sticky Faith Cohorts has been the power of small wins in changing organizational culture. The same is true in people’s lives. Baby steps might be small but they are good, solid steps in the right direction.

4. Put your positive comments in writing or texts. When you’re thinking something positive about a young person, text them or write 3 sentences on an index card and pop it in the mail to them.

In my family and in my church, I’d love to see young people have lots of positive comments deposited into their emotional bank account.

Kara Powell

Dr. Kara Powell is the Executive Director of the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI), a faculty member at Fuller Theological Seminary, and Fuller's Chief of Leadership Formation. Named by Christianity Today as one of “50 Women You Should Know,” Kara serves as a Youth and Family Strategist for Orange, and also speaks regularly at parenting and leadership conferences. Kara is the author or coauthor of a number of books, including Growing Young, Growing With, The Sticky Faith Guide for Your Family, Sticky Faith Curriculum, Can I Ask That?, Deep Justice Journeys, Deep Justice in a Broken World, Deep Ministry in a Shallow World, and the Good Sex Youth Ministry Curriculum. Kara lives with her husband Dave and their three children, Nathan, Krista, and Jessica, in Southern California.


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