My New Empathy Office

A couple of years ago, the executive team at Stack Overflow had the privilege of doing an off-site with Jerry Colonna, the CEO of Reboot and one of the most badass executive coaches you’ll ever find. I took so many things away from that session, but my favorite was this tool, “Red-Yellow-Green”.

So much of what Jerry teaches is radical self-inquiry and the importance of understanding ourselves and each other as part of our leadership. This “Red-Yellow-Green” exercise is designed to foster empathy without being overly intrusive.

It’s simple: Go around the room before a meeting or ask the person you’re speaking with if they’re red, yellow, or green.

  • Red:  You might be going through a tough family situation. Maybe you’re coming down with a cold and feel plain awful. Bottom line: things aren’t good.
  • Yellow: Meh. Something’s off, but it’s not terrible. You might have just come off a string of long meetings. You might be anxious about your in-laws coming to town. There’s something that’s preventing you from being your best self.
  • Green: You’re all good and ready to rock n’ roll.

We can’t expect everyone to always be open and vulnerable about how they’re feeling. Sometimes we’re not even equipped to understand what we feel or why we feel the way we do.  Having this simple, shared vocabulary gives everyone a tool to express themselves without having to divulge all the details.

You can imagine that if someone is in the red, you might reconsider how you give that person feedback or confront them about a tough situation. If they’re not engaged in a meeting or seem distant, it’s easy for the group to understand that there’s something happening to that person that’s preventing them from being present. I’ve instituted this shared practice on my team and it’s something we’ll occasionally do when we meet as an executive team.

This is anecdotal, but I’ve made a few observations after doing this exercise maybe 100+ times.

  • We’re social creatures and our colors are contagious. I rarely find even distribution of colors on my team. When folks are stressed or anxious about work, the majority of the group is red/yellow. When we’re in our flow, everyone is mostly green.
  • Most colors come with an explanation. Even though you’re not obligated to share, I find that most people give a reason for why they’re a particular color. In some cases, we might even opt to say things like, “I’m green at work, but red at home.”
  • Colors can change after a conversation or they can last for weeks. Someone can start off red, but move to yellow or green if a conversation or meeting gives them resolution. In contrast, someone might be in a steady state of yellow or red for long stretches of time. These are the people you need to reach out to. A simple, “How can I help?” or “Let me know if there’s anything I can do for you” can go a long way.

I took my obsession with this exercise to a whole new level tonight when I set up these LED lights in my office. Each December, Stack Overflow employees get a holiday gift from the company. It’s usually something tech-related – a Sonos speaker, Jawbone UP, Kindle, etc. This year we all got a set of Nano Leaf Aurora lights.

You can control the lights via mobile app and create custom settings or scenes. I immediately created three:


So if you see me on a Google hangout or Zoom room with one of these backgrounds, you’ll never have to ask me how I’m doing. You’ll see what I feel instead.

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