How One Tool Transformed our Employees into Confident Decision-Makers

Imagine you are in the middle of a meeting with your manager when your phone buzzes. Your manager raises an eyebrow as you rush to see who was calling and silence the phone. Five minutes later, the phone buzzes again. “I’m really sorry,” you say. “It’s Jonathan and I think he needs my help.” Your manager nods, sighs, and turns to check their own phone.

In my experience, it’s not a difficult situation to imagine. In fact, I think I’ve been “Jonathan” as well as the supervisor and the manager at different times in my career. And it doesn’t feel good to be any of those people.

At Mil Milagros, we are in the business of training leaders, and we believe that everyone deserves the chance to learn and grow into their leadership skills, no matter their educational or professional background. With that comes the knowledge that each staff member is in a different place in their leadership journey, and a LOT of phone calls to ask if they are making the right decisions.

When we couldn’t get through one leadership meeting without at least 5-6 phone calls from staff, we decided it was time to do something about it. And I’m not exaggerating when I say that the tool that we implemented, with the help of our leadership consultant, has transformed the way our organization works. I won’t say we never have a phone call interrupt a meeting–but now it's the exception rather than the rule. And it’s all thanks to the Decision Stoplight.

The Tool That Transformed our Organization

When we asked our supervisors about what kinds of questions they were getting from staff, we realized that many were things that staff could decide on their own–they just didn’t feel comfortable doing it. So, we did what we always do: we analyzed the situation, created a tool, and trained our staff on it.

We use the three colors of the stoplight to help us decide when staff can make a decision on their own, when they should come up with ideas and suggestions and bring them to their supervisor, and when staff need to immediately “stop” and let a supervisor or another leadership staff member decide.

Green light decisions

The first level of decisions are called green light decisions. Just like green means you can keep going without slowing down, green light decisions are ones that you can take on our own without consulting your supervisor. These decisions are ones that you’ve made before or that follow a similar pattern, so you know what your supervisor would say if you did consult them.

Yellow light decisions

The next level of decisions are called yellow light decisions. For these decisions, you don’t take action right away. New situations that don’t follow an existing pattern or are more complicated than previous situations you’ve encountered require you to slow down, come up with a suggested decision, and go to your supervisor to discuss. The reason for this is that your supervisor may have more experience with the situation and can make a more informed decision. But, you don’t just go to the supervisor and ask them to make the decision. It is important that the employee show up with their suggestions and the context for the situation, so that together with the supervisor, they can make the best decision possible.

Red light decisions

Red light decisions are decisions that require immediate action from a supervisor or their supervisor. We know what these decisions are: they are the decisions that can change things dramatically and quickly in the organization. When the pandemic hit, the decision to take the entire team remote and completely change the way we were operating was a decision that went to the Executive Director and the Board of Directors. It wasn’t a green light decision for anyone. That was a red light decision. There shouldn’t be very many decisions in this area.

The secret to getting employees to make more decisions

The stoplight system is useful in itself, but the real value for our organization comes from clearly communicating to our staff that our goal with the decision stoplight is to move as many decisions as possible into the green light area. We normalize that when a staff member enters the organization or begins a new role, they are going to have a lot of decisions in the “yellow” area. Their goal, together with their supervisor and teammates, is to recognize when a decision is made, review it together, and when the staff member and supervisor feel confident, move the decision into the “green” area.

Sometimes, even when a decision has been moved to the green area, a staff member will check in with their supervisor. At this point, it is important for the supervisor to recognize this and gently remind them that the decision is a “green light” decision. Using the terminology of the stoplight system helps us to remember our goal that staff across the organization are making decisions as much as possible.

What happens if someone makes a decision that they shouldn’t?

The risk you run by implementing this system is that someone will make a decision that they shouldn’t have made. I won’t say this isn’t a risk. But I will say that it’s a risk we are willing to take in order to have confident staff. And that there are a few things that we do to mitigate the risk.

  1. Review decisions with supervisor
  1. Remind staff to make all decisions through the lens of our values

When a staff member begins to make more decisions, they review the decisions made with their supervisor in their weekly individual meetings. That way, the supervisor can ask questions about the decision, give feedback, and most importantly, praise them for making more decisions even when it can feel uncomfortable.

We also provide practice sessions where we give staff members a situation and ask them what decision they would make, taking into consideration our organization’s values and the experience they already have. This experience helps to remind them to always keep our values in mind when they are making decisions and builds their confidence that they do have the experience to make difficult decisions.

What to do when someone does make a mistake?

Maybe it’s more important to talk about what NOT to do. As long as the mistake isn’t one that creates a red light situation - aka it is so severe that it requires immediate action from a supervisor - we first praise that the staff member made the decision. We do not immediately blame them for making a bad decision. One harsh comment about a bad decision can erase months of confidence-building.

Instead, we remind them of our values and ask what decision they would make now after having seen the consequences. Most often, they recognize the error in their decision and can explain how they would make a different decision given the chance. And, of course, we can’t wait to give them the chance to make another decision!

By Carolyn Daly


We’d love to hear from you if you implement the decision stoplight in your organization. Email us at to let us know how it’s going!

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