During his years as senior vice president at Hallmark Cards Inc., Jim Welch managed 600 employees. He wanted every one of them to feel comfortable criticizing him.To encourage them to speak up, he gave each of them a yellow "challenge flag." Modeled on the red flags that the National Football League's head coaches use to challenge a referee's call, Welch says they spurred lively debates. He's now president of the Growth Leader, a consulting firm in Kansas City, Mo.
He introduced the idea by telling employees, "I'm not a stupid person, but I make at least three stupid decisions out of the 100 or so I make each week. I want you to tell me when that happens."Employees could throw their flag at anyone with whom they disagreed over a business issue. Using a flag depersonalized the criticism, says Welch, author of Grow Now. Workers could also pick up the flag and use it again.
Welch recalls walking down the hall when a front-line clerk threw her flag at him. He stopped to hear her challenge.
"I can't believe that you put that product in our catalog," she told Welch. "We have a much better product to promote!"
Welch heard her out and agreed with her. He admitted his mistake and inserted the better product in the next catalog.
"It was a playful ritual that sent a message that it's okay to challenge each other," Welch says. "It made everyone more willing to exchange views in a respectful fashion."