Leadership Lessons from Rice & Water

A couple of years ago, I read about an experiment conducted by Dr. Masaru Emoto in which he placed rice and water in three different jars. He labeled one jar You’re an idiot! and another jar Thank you! For 30-seconds each day, he would say “You’re an idiot” or “Thank you” to the respective jars. Oh, the third jar had nothing on its label, and he ignored this jar completely.

Summary: After several months, the liquid inside the jar labeled “Thank you” smelled sweet; the liquid inside the jar labeled “You’re an idiot” turned black; the liquid inside the jar with nothing on the label (the ignored jar) turned black and rancid.

Conclusion: Even water and rice respond well to positive words and poorly to negative words, but…

…Nothing hurts as much as being ignored.

So I copied the experiment. Sort of.

I labeled one jar @$~!^%*#, another jar I love you, and left the final jar blank, putting it in a seldom-used room.

My wife grew increasingly scared of me during those early days, because I didn’t tell her about the experiment. Instead, she would hear me screaming at random times each day, You filthy &#^%*$#! I wish you were dead! followed moments later with, I love you, daring, and I am so grateful for how you love me, too.

Fast-forward two years, and here’s what happened to my own rice and water in the experiment I conducted:


  • The I love you jar stayed mostly clear;
  • The @$~!^%*# jar got dark and murky;
  • The ignored jar turned cloudy.

And when I poured the contents of each jar down the sink, the ensuing smell that filled the room was what you would expect from a gutted camel. Even the cats stayed out of the room for hours afterwards.

But more important than the rice and water findings are the 2 key conclusions I made related to people:

First, I can’t be trusted to follow a simple recipe, much less a complicated experimental test protocol.

I realize that this point isn’t readily generalizable, but I need to own up to my failures. It turns out that in the original experiment, researchers used cooked rice (I used raw), sterilized jars (I pulled mine off the shelf and blew dust out of them), and spoke the same phrases at the same time each day to the rice (I cursed or flirted to my jars whenever they ticked me off or pleased me…until I forgot about them entirely for about a year).

I have no idea why my own results so closely mirrored those of the researchers when I followed almost none of the strict protocols of Dr. Emoto.

Second, if you’re a leader, the worse thing you can do is ignore people.

In my years as a family therapist and as a friend listening to other friends with relationship issues, I had uncanny accuracy in predicting which relationships would fail. Fights and arguments occur in every relationship, so fights aren’t a predictor of the impending doom of a relationship. Rather, relationships end when one or both partners stop caring enough to talk about or fight for the relationship.

If you’re a leader, take these 3 points to the bank:

1. Employees perform best with I love you’s.

No, don’t say I love you at work unless you work on Candid Camera and want to get some footage of people looking uncomfortable. I love you at work means that you create an environment of praise, positive affirmation, encouragement, recognition, eye contact, smiles, and verbal ata-boys. According to researcher Marcial Losada, the minimum ratio of positive to negative feedback for individuals to thrive at work is 2.9013:1. And that ratio jumps to 11:1 in times of stress and change!

2. Employees need correction.

Occasional, legitimate correction develops two things that employees must have at work to be successful and happy. One, it builds competence because employees will learn your expectations and how to meet them. Two, it builds confidence because employees know you care enough to observe and provide feedback. Think of your correction as a safety net: employees don’t always need it, but it’s there when they do.

St. Paul wrote in his letter to the Ephesian church the importance of “speaking the truth in love.” If you’re a leader, you have to be willing to correct people when they’re out of line. But correct them kindly, in a loving manner. If you feel the need to say things like, You filthy &#^%*$#! I wish you were dead!, save those words for your jar of rice and water instead of your people.

3. Employees lose motivation when treated with silence.

Feedback is your friend, my former boss, Jerry, used to tell me right before he was about to get real friendly with me. But it’s true. Feedback–even negative feedback–motivates people better than silence.


Silence often signals the death of passion and indicates a relationship is on life-support. Ignored and in silence, rice and water turn murky and rancid. Ignore and give the silent treatment to an employee, spouse, child, friend, neighbor, co-worker, or any fellow human being for a much shorter amount of time, and you end up crushing that person’s spirit.

If you care about someone, let him hear from you. If someone is doing a good job, say that. If someone needs to do better, say that. But know that nothing hurts as much as silence.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *