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By James Tamm (January 16, 2006)

Project leaders can do their part to turn a blame-shifting “red zone” work environment into a “green zone” of shared vision and team collaboration by upholding these five principles.

Are you stymied by the collaboration void in your workplace? Wonder why, when you’ve struggled to select the best and the brightest for your project teams, 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.

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.

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.

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

1. Think win-win.
Foster a non-defensive attitude among team members, 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.

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 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.

4. 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.

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 to learn and grow. Focus on understanding everyone’s underlying interests, and 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.

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