Yellow flags and the Leader’s Role

Last time I talked about the Leader using Coaching skills to develop their team members, so they could give up telling employees ‘how’ to do the work, and let them innovate.

One of the real keys for Leaders to give up ‘command and control’ is to create agreements with their team members on the criteria for success and what constitutes a ‘yellow flag’- something that would be a trigger for a manager to step in and offer assistance.  Notice, I did not say take over- what learning would come from that?

So what does an agreement look like? And what’s a yellow flag look like?  Here’s a very simple example:

Project “keystone” requires Mary to:

  • Interview 7 Potential vendors by May 1
  • Summarize the vendors’ capabilities in table form with all the same criteria by May 7
  • Interview the references provided by May 14

Here’s where a manager MIGHT be overstepping the bounds and getting into the “Hows” to get this done:

  • Interview these specific 7 vendors, with these specific questions, and these particular criteria
  • Use this provided template, font, etc. to present your findings and post to this SharePoint
  • Conduct all reference checks via phone with these people present by conference call


  • The employee should be the one to determine the vendors, while brainstorming OR collecting required criteria with stakeholders
  • The employee should determine the best way to present the data and even their recommendations
  • The employee should determine the best way to meet the May 14th deadline and collect all the references

So here is where the Yellow Flags concept can be helpful.

When sharing the “What needs to be done” with the employee and avoiding the “how to get it done” you should make some agreements – for example:

  • Every Friday you’ll send me a brief memo with the status of the project indicating:

o   Decisions made, i.e. We included these 7 vendors, and left off Acme due to pending litigation

o   Help needed – and by when, i.e. talk to procurement about minority business owners by April 1

o   Probability of meeting the agreed upon deadline, i.e. At this point I’m 75% confident we will have completed the 7 interviews by May 1, to make it 100% I’d need to travel to Ohio

  • If it becomes immediately apparent the timeline is in jeopardy, you’ll let me know right away and schedule time on my calendar

The Yellow Flags that go with this agreement would likely be:

  • Friday comes and goes with no memo from Mary
  • The memo conflicts with conversations you overheard at the watercooler
  • What you perceive to be a threat to the timeline, due to the Friday memo contents isn’t caught by Mary

If you perceive a yellow flag, it’s time to call Mary to discuss the project and ask more questions.  If in the conversation you believe Mary to be overly optimistic or inexperienced, again – ask questions or share your OWN experience.  “Mary, it’s my experience that when an update is missed or late, it’s because the owner is waiting on someone.  Is your team being responsive enough?” 

When team members feel like they have control, but still have a safety net, and a supportive manager they are more likely to share potential threats to a project’s success.  They appreciate a partner in solving problems and addressing needs.  They grow and develop in thinking for themselves and not having the answer handed to them.   Resist advising and enjoy the diversity of approach and thought that comes with asking what your employees think. 

Next time I’ll share some great questions managers can ask to illicit employees’ ingenuity.