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Stoplight Feedback

Updated: Dec 12, 2023

Leaders Need Feedback too!

Everyone needs feedback. Why?

  • To improve performance

  • To validate behaviors

  • To ensure effectiveness

  • To course-correct

Leaders have a challenge though. The higher up in an organization you go, the more difficult it becomes to get REAL feedback. There will always be people who will tell you what they think you want to hear. And most often, the feedback leaders receive from their own managers (if they get any at all) is all around doing better.

I developed a practice that worked for me, and I now teach it to clients. The model is simple and intuitive. In fact, you can get the basic idea from the graphic above.

It is CRITICAL that you employ this technique in a specific manner; if not, you run the risk of doing more harm than good.

The Stoplight Feedback Tool - What It Is

Here's how to explain the process to anyone you are seeking feedback from. Pay attention to the order of the steps - it makes a difference!

A simple intro might sound like this:

"In order for me to be more effective, it would help me to know how you feel about my leadership style. I would like your insight in three areas:"

And then explain the tool:

Please give me GREEN feedback: what do I do that you like or appreciate, and you want me to know so I keep doing it?

I would also like some YELLOW feedback: What should I do a little bit differently - more of, less of, a slightly different way - to work better for you?

Now I would appreciate your RED feedback: what do I do that really frustrates you, and you want me to know so I never EVER do it again!

The Stoplight Feedback Tool - Who Is Your Audience?

I most often used this tool during my 1:1's with my direct reports, and also their direct reports during skip-level meetings. The higher you are in the organization, the more of your responsibilities are accomplished by your team. These relationships are the most critical for meeting your own goals and objectives.

If you struggle to get feedback from your manager, you can give this a try with them too. Unless your manager is a rock star, be prepared to get more RED feedback here. So many managers think they have to focus on critical feedback, and neglect the value in the good stuff. IYKYK...

The Stoplight Feedback Tool - HOW To Use It

First and formost, you need to understand this is an exercise in collecting information!

Listen, take notes, and ask questions for clarification. At no time can you get defensive, or attempt to explain! As soon as you do either, the person you are talking with will shut down.

You absolutely can and should ask questions during this process! You can say "I would like to make sure I understand what you said, can I ask a question?" Asking permission to ask questions is a great technique to let the other person feel a measure of control, and can help facilitate the discussion.

If the person you are talking with says something that you feel is completely off base - DO. NOT. ATTEMPT. TO. CORRECT. THEM. AT. THIS. TIME!!! I'll provide ideas about how to follow up on the feedback session later in this blog post.

The first time you have this feedback conversation, don't be surprised if the people you talk with don't give you much information. They are likely thinking a combination of:

  • Is she really serious?

  • Does she REALLY want to know what I think?

  • What's the risk in my being honest?

  • Will she really change?

RED feedback is the MOST IMPORTANT!

RED feedback in particular can be difficult to get at first. It is the most valuable for your ongoing effectiveness, and worth the effort you invest to get it.


Decades of research have shown that people need these 4 elements from their leaders:

  • Trust

  • Compassion

  • Stability

  • Hope

Think of feedback as your Leadership Scorecard - your Voice of the Customer if you will. At the end of the day, it does not matter how effective you think you are - it matters what your team, your customers, think and feel.

What Happens Next?

To build credibility in your process, find some YELLOW feedback you can take action on quickly. Like, same day, or within a few days. As fast as you can make it happen!

This lets people know you are serious. I helps build trust and deepens relationships.

Remember...people talk. By now folks on your team are all talking about their conversations with you. This is normal human behavior. They may compare notes about what they said, and they DEFINITELY will compare notes about how you responded!

You may want to start a file to capture your GREEN feedback. Look for themes and commonality. These are your strengths! Know them, use them, and rely on them at every opportunity.

How To Process RED Feedback

Resist the temptation to act on RED feedback in the moment! It can be hard to hear, especially if you thought you were doing something well, and you really got it wrong.

First, take some time to process. Rather than think about why this feedback is *wrong , think about where it might be right. We all have blind spots, and the point of getting feedback is to bring awareness to them so we can get better.

Second, try to corroborate the feedback. You could go to a trusted colleage, share the feedback, and ask them if they have seen similar behaviors. You can also run it by others in future feedback sessions. Be careful how you share it though - you have to protect the source.

Make sure to follow up on the RED feedback at an appropriate time. Don't rush it, but don't wait until your next 1:1 either. If you don't have a solution, that's ok - say so. This might sound like: "Thank you for having the courage to tell me xxx. I realize that must have been hard for you to tell me, and it was hard for me to hear too. I want you to know I heard you, and while I don't have an answer for you now, I am working on it."

If you do have a path forward, the follow-up might sound like this. Note it starts the same way: "Thank you for having the courage to tell me xxx. I realize that must have been hard for you to tell me, and it was hard for me to hear too. I want you to know I heard you, and here's what I am going to do differently. Please do let me know how I'm doing on this, it is really important to me to get this right."

How To Implement Stoplight Feedback

You want to communicate this process in several ways BEFORE you begin holding the feedback sessions. If you have a full-team leadership meeting, start there. Explain the process, commit to being open, and emphasize the confidentialty of the conversations.

Ahead of each feedback meeting (perhaps in the meeting invite) include a cheat sheet with explanations for Green, Yellow, and Red feedback. Feel free to cut and paste from this blog :-)

And please, PLEASE do not cancel or reschedule these meetings! Short of a true emergency, you need to honor your commitment to the process. If you cancel or reschedule, you have immediately signaled that this is not important to you.

By now you are thinking "Wow, this really takes some thought, planning, and effort." You are correct. It does. If this is not the right time for you to begin using the Stoplight Feedback tool, then DO. NOT. DO. IT. Again, starting this and then failing to follow through will do more damage to your relationships than not doing anything.

Be courageous and make the investment in yourself to be the best Leader you can be. Your team will aprreciate it, and you will feel great!

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