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#618     Innovative Leader           Volume 14, Number 5                 January – March 2006

The “Red Zone” Organization
by James W. Tamm

Jim Tamm, a workplace expert specializing in building collaborative work environments (, is co-author of Radical Collaboration (HarperBusiness, New York, 2006). 

Are you stymied by the collaboration void in your workplace? Wonder why, when you’ve struggled to hire the best and the brightest, tempers flare and productivity often grinds to a halt?

Your workplace may be a “Red Zone”—an environment where turf is guarded and defensiveness abounds.

Red Zone organizations are made up of individuals who are short on “Green Zone” qualities such as trust, optimism, and goodwill.  When a project fizzles or fails in a Red Zone workplace, people turn to shame and blame—focusing not on what went wrong, but on who did wrong.

No fun

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 they waste more time and energy on self-preservation than they spend on bottom-line priorities. 

To stand a chance of keeping their stars, Red Zone organizations often dangle carrots such as bigger-and-better pay, perks, or bennies.  Still, productivity and morale suffer because Red Zone attitudes fog the corporate culture.

Greener pastures

A Green Zone environment, in contrast, is a fun place to work.  Employees work together to pursue a shared vision.  They value collaboration and get the job done with a strong sense of teamwork and excellence.

Sure, Green Zone qualities can’t save a company that makes lousy products or offers crummy customer service.  Yet, studies show when all else is equal, Green Zone organizations enjoy long-term profitability and growth, while their Red Zone counterparts suffer in all areas.  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 isn’t magic.  It’s 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 fifteen-year initiative teaching collaborative skills in highly adversarial Red Zone organizations reveals five essential skills for building successful collaborative environments.

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 living and working in the Green Zone.

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.

Be accountable.  There’s no room 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 choose to change what’s not working.  And recognize employees who focus on solutions.

Be self-aware—and aware of others.  Work hard to understand your thoughts, feelings, emotions, intentions, and behaviors—and work just as hard to understand those around you.  Create an environment where people feel free to ask what’s up when they don’t “get” someone else’s attitude or behavior.

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 to learn and grow.  Focus on understanding everyone’s underlying interests, 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 W. Tamm.  All rights reserved.

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