You Can Focus on the Positive But Don’t Forget About Reality


When I was a kid playing football growing up, my coaches loved to yell and scream. When you did something wrong, you heard all about it. A lot of coaches and leaders—then and now—are yellers and screamers, using that as their strategy for correcting problems.

I didn’t like it back then, and that has never been my approach as a leader in football, business, or any other part of life.

One of my first businesses, when I was still playing in the NFL, was called Behavioral Systems. I started it with a psychologist I met named Aubrey Daniels. Our business was to go into textile factories in the South with a team of psychologists to help train their managers to be more effective leaders and increase productivity. At the time, these manufacturing companies were seeing poor productivity, unsustainably high turnover rates, bad attendance and tardiness problems—everything.

Our approach, developed by Dr. Daniels, was all about feedback and communication between managers and workers, and our fundamental principle was the 4-to-1 Rule. Simply put, you should give four pieces of positive feedback for every one piece of negative. And that feedback needed to be timely, and behavior-specific.

We didn’t teach people to scream and yell when something went wrong; we taught them to look for things people were doing a good job with, and encourage those things. Workers knew when they were doing something right, and their hard work was being acknowledged. When they got positive feedback for something, they were probably going to do it more often, and others would try to do the same.

For a lot of people, this was a major shift. Like my old coaches, they had learned over time to focus on the negative. So we spent a lot of time talking about positive reinforcement, because not only did they need to incorporate it into their leadership, but they needed to do a lot more of it than anything else!

But by the same token, in a 4-to-1 ratio, you can’t ignore the 1. Our teams encouraged leaders to use a lot of positive reinforcement, but it couldn’t just be all positive. If something was really wrong, we couldn’t just ignore it and pretend it wasn’t there (or even worse, encourage it!). It’s important to deal with reality, to see the signs and be willing to do what you have to do to fix it. Someone who only gives positive feedback without ever acknowledging problems is missing half of the equation, too. But even when giving negative feedback, it wasn’t about yelling and screaming. It was about correcting something wrong, and showing how to do it better.

It worked. The results were dramatic, increasing productivity, improving attendance, decreasing turnover by half. The success led us to expand the program and help a lot more people.

As a quarterback, I put those principles of positive reinforcement (without ignoring problems) to work, with great results. For the past 40 years, they have been important principles as I’ve run my businesses. I knew early on what kind of leader I didn’t want to be. As a leader, I want to correct when things are wrong, but above all I want to encourage and help my teammates to succeed and win.

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Fran Tarkenton

Fran Tarkenton

Fran Tarkenton is an entrepreneur and NFL Hall of Famer, and the founder of and Tarkenton Companies. With a passion for small business, he’s started more than 20 businesses during and after his NFL career. Fran is a small business coach for entrepreneurs and business owners, providing advice and guidance through sites such as,, and more. He has written about business issues in the Wall Street Journal, U.S. New and World Report, and USA Today, along with regular appearances on CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC. You can follow Fran on Twitter @Fran_Tarkenton.