What to do when you see a status or metric as “Red”

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In my previous article, I identified how a manager’s subtle actions can turn into not-so-subtle disasters. The subtle action is reacting negatively to “red” on a status report.  The reaction is that employee will hide the “bad news” from you.  Bad management and bad results ensue.

So let’s talk about how a manager can think through why seeing “red” on a status report (or receiving any other bad news) should not be responded to with anger, yelling or “just solve it.”  We know that this creates a vicious cycle, so let’s identify some things that a manager should consider and say before sending marching orders to solve the problem.

1. It is entirely appropriate that there be items that are “red.”

Consider the following reasons:

The “red” item may be the de-prioritized item.

The “red” item is a new item and is being worked on to get to the point of “green.”

The “red” item, if it is on a scorecard, may be something with very low numbers, significance or sample size, and the “red” status isn’t as significant as others.

The “red” item may be the item that is calibrated to be in the worst shape of all the items, thus earning the status of red.  That is, as the lowest scoring metric, it is by definition the worst, and is therefore red.

In other words, it is inevitable and desirable that there be “red” items.

Instead of getting mad, the appropriate response to these scenarios is to determine the significance and priority of the “red” items.  Ask whether these “red” items are the high priority items.

2. Work, projects, and achieving goals – these are all hard to do

In theory you have a team that is coming into work every day to solve problems and make things better.  If they are reporting that something is not solved, then this implies that they should come into work and make things better.  The judgment of a team should not be whether or not there are “red” items, but what they are doing about it – and how well you are enabling them to improve it.  Say to your team, “This is why we come to work!  Let’s work on a plan to take care of the issue and execute to the plan.”

3. No “red” implies perfection and an ultra-high performing team

When a manager reacts negatively to seeing a low metric or a problem, this indicates that the manager somehow believes that the team is already perfect, that it is high-performing, and can resolve all issues prior to them being discovered and reported as issues.  This is wishful thinking.  Instead of seeing “red” as a problem, you should see “red” as an opportunity to get better, and actually achieve that high-performance, instead of wishing you were already there.  Say to your team: “This gives an opportunity to get better as a team.”

4. It’s your job to help resolve the issue

When a problem is identified, all of the best resources should be in place to help resolve it.  The manager is a resource in this mix, and should be treated as such.  It really is the manager’s job to offer assistance and work collaboratively to take care of issues.  Say to your team, “What can I do to help make things better?”

So before “drilling down” on a red-status items, make sure that this is what you really want to do, and be deliberate about how you react to it.  It sets the tone for the organization on how problems get solved, and if you want a problem-solving environment, you need to be at the leading edge of this.

What do you do when you see or hear something that you don’t like?  What are some things that you’ve heard managers say that are particularly effective at keeping the team focused on improvement?

Related articles:

If you’re the manager, it’s your job not to act surprised

Managers behaving badly: Training the team not to report bad news

Behavior-based language primer for managers: Avoid using value judgments

Behavior-based language primer for managers: Stop using generalizations

Examples of when to offer thanks and when to offer praise

The Cost of Low Quality Management

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About Walter Oelwein
Walter Oelwein, CMC, CPT, helps managers become better at managing. To do this, he founded Business Performance Consulting, LLC .


2 Responses to “What to do when you see a status or metric as “Red””
  1. Pat says:

    Good point. I know a man who graded his wife on the meals she prepared, always giving her a ‘B’ so she would try harder, although she had actually earned an ‘A’. So some ‘red’ should keep everyone on their toes.

  2. Hi Pat!

    Things won’t always be perfect, but if there is an “A” meal being served, it should get credit for being an A! Check out this article: http://managerbydesign.com/2010/07/examples-of-when-to-offer-thanks-and-when-to-offer-praise/

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