Red Yellow Green | The Traffic Light That Can Transform Your Meetings

April 2, 2020

A few years ago, Khaled Halim, an incredible CEO coach from Reboot, came to a global summit run by Google for Startups to run a session on leadership. There was one idea — an easy tool for team conversations — that has stuck with me over the years and delivered extraordinary results in my work and life.

It’s called Red Yellow Green.

The idea behind it is simple — we all show up to work (and life) feeling different each day. Our moods, energy levels, and emotions are constantly changing, just like the weather. Red Yellow Green acknowledges an unspoken truth that we too often ignore in business: we’re human!

The exercise is simple too — you just ask your teammates how they’re feeling before you begin a meeting.

Pick a Colour

Like a traffic light, each colour represents a general mood. The beauty is the simplicity of the system. Here is a short explanation of each colour, but you can certainly expand beyond the feelings and descriptions I’ve given:

  • Red means not good! You might be feeling distracted, distressed, overwhelmed, or exhausted.
  • Green means great! You might be feeling energised, happy, confident, or inspired.
  • Yellow is somewhere in between. You’re not too stressed, but not feeling great either.

Test it With Your Team

Red Yellow Green is like a team traffic light that reminds us to stop, go, or proceed with caution whenever we get into conversations with our teammates.

By asking each other where we’re at, we create an opportunity for empathy, connection, and understanding. On a practical level, we also avoid having the right conversations at the wrong time.

If you want to talk long-term strategy, but your teammate’s dog just died, is now the right time to have that conversation? Probably not, but we do it all the time anyway. By using Red Yellow Green, you can time your conversations better and wait till the right moment to pitch a new idea, or deliver some tough feedback.

Red Yellow Green gives us the opportunity to ‘check the weather’ and see how people are doing in the moment. But don’t treat it like team therapy. It’s a straightforward check-in that works best when it’s short and sweet.

If you’re skeptical, I was too until I tested it out and saw results right away.

Try it out for a week and see how it goes. You can blame me if it backfires.

I am sure you’ll see positive changes in your conversations, and it turns out there is data to back this up.

Traffic Data

As I was writing this article, I took a look around to see who else might be using Red Yellow Green, and what other perspectives or variations of the exercise were out there.

Former CEO of Etsy, Chad Dickerson, is also a fan, which doesn’t come as a surprise as he is now working with Reboot as an executive coach.

In his blog post, he shares an interesting article from Harvard Business Review that touches on a similar exercise implemented at the Rotterdam Eye Hospital:

At the start of every shift, the team members get together for a brief “team-start.” Each team member rates his or her own mood as green (I’m good), orange (I’m okay but I have a few things I’m concerned about) or red (I’m under stress). The rest of the team doesn’t need to know that you’re under stress because you’re having a dispute with your landlord or you are worried about your ill toddler. How you feel, however, is important because it affects how you should be treated.

And what have the results been?

This routine might not sound like the makings of a significant advance, but Rotterdam Eye Hospital has experienced some significant improvements in service quality since it introduced the card game in 2015. First, the hospital’s performance on its patient-safety audits has risen, and caregiver job satisfaction has improved substantially, moving from 8.0 to 9.2 on a 10-point scale after staff began playing the game. The nursing home and rehabilitation center reported similar results.

There are other intangible benefits reported, including better team bonding, deeper understanding of certain protocols, and a renewed sense of the importance of each person’s role.

It’s a fascinating read if you have a few more minutes: “How One Hospital Improved Patient Safety in 10 Minutes a Day (HBR).”

Put It Into Practice

There are many flavours to this exercise, and you can experiment with it to see how it makes sense on your team or in your life. Here are my guidelines:

Start with a question. Take a minute before you begin a meeting to check in each other. You might ask,“how are you showing up today?” Or you can say, “Are you open to using Red Yellow Green to check in?”

Leaders go first. When it comes to team culture, I believe it’s built from the top. That’s why it’s beneficial for the most senior teammate to start the exercise and demonstrate openness and vulnerability.

Choose your colour. Everyone is encouraged to share where they are at, in this very moment, with total honesty. There is no wrong answer.

Share an explanation. If time allows, it’s helpful to provide more context. This encourages connection and builds trust. Just a quick sentence or two is usually enough. Remember, it’s OK if someone doesn’t want to share, simply knowing each other’s colour is already a game changer.

Get on with your work. This exercise is most effective when it’s short and sharp. Try not to let the conversations go too far. There is a time and place for more in-depth sharing, but the beauty of Red Yellow Green is its simple and straightforward format.

If you try this and you have feedback, send me a Tweet or an email. I love hearing your stories as you are a part of this community.