Is Your Organization a "Red Zone" or a "Green Zone?"

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 26, 2020

By Jim Tamm

Life in the “Red Zone”
Does the following description fit your workplace? Tempers flare at the drop of a hat. Cooperation and collaboration are almost unheard of. Sometimes, accomplishing even the simplest task seems nearly impossible—even though you’ve struggled to hire the best and the brightest.

If the above scenario sounds familiar, your workplace may be a “Red Zone”—an environment where turf is guarded and defensiveness abounds. The individuals who work in Red Zone organizations are short on trust, optimism and goodwill, what I call “Green Zone” qualities. When a project fails in a Red Zone workplace, people turn to shame and blame—focusing not on what went wrong, but on who did wrong.

Not surprisingly, a Red Zone organization isn’t a fun place to work. People aren’t excited to be there. Most everyone favors victory over solutions. And people waste more time and energy on self-preservation than on the bottom line.

Red Zone organizations may dangle tempting carrots in front of their star performers to keep them from seeking greener pastures—bigger paychecks, perks and assorted other “bennies.” Still, productivity and morale suffer because overall, the negative Red Zone attitudes fog the corporate culture.

Greener Pastures

A Green Zone work environment, in contrast to the Red Zone, is a fun place to work. Employees work together to pursue a shared vision. They value collaboration and accomplish results through a strong sense of teamwork and a commitment to excellence.

Green Zone qualities can’t save a company that makes shoddy products or offers poor customer service. But studies show that when all else is equal, Green Zone organizations enjoy long-term profitability and growth, while their Red Zone counterparts grow stagnant. Some companies even “Red Zone” themselves right out of business.

Changing Colors—and Cultures

So, can Red Zone organizations move into the Green Zone? And can employees at all levels learn to collaborate? Absolutely! Collaboration is a mind-set and a skill-set—both of which can be learned—that can make a big difference to a company’s bottom line.

A 15-year initiative aimed at teaching collaborative skills in highly adversarial Red Zone organizations reveals five essential skills for building successful collaborative environments:

1. Think win-win. Foster a nondefensive attitude among employees and reward people who care about others’ interests and needs as much as their own. Mutual success is the hallmark of positive, long-term relationships—and life in the Green Zone.

2. Speak the truth. Dishonesty poisons the workplace. If you’re serious about changing your corporate culture, you must speak—and vow to listen to—the truth. Green Zoners are open, honest and “out there” with their intentions, observations and feelings—and they receive the same candor in return. They’re also excellent listeners—behavior you must model if you want others to follow suit.

3. Be accountable. There’s no place for shame or blame in the Green Zone. Promote a culture in which people take responsibility for their performance and their relationships. Encourage everyone to commit to changing what’s not working. Recognize employees who focus on solutions.

4. Be self-aware—and aware of others. Work hard to understand your own thoughts, feelings, emotions, intentions and behaviors—and work just as hard to understand the people around you. Create an environment where people feel free to question someone else’s attitude or behavior.

5. Learn from conflict. All relationships bump up against conflict once in a while—especially when deadlines and other pressures loom. The key is to use the conflict as an opportunity for learning and growth. Once you focus on understanding people’s underlying interests you can then seek mutually beneficial solutions. When you hit a wall, take a time-out, consider what’s going on with you and those around you and then start over.

© 2005 James Tamm. All rights reserved.

About the Author(s)

Jim Tamm specializes in building collaborative work environments. He is a coauthor of Radical Collaboration (HarperBusiness). Contact him at