Raising The White Flag

You know that feeling when you’re running a meeting - perhaps one that involves a long discussion or debate over an important decision - and you realize that you start to lose people? That Bob - who 20 minutes ago cared so much about the outcome - now really just cares about going to lunch and whether poké is actually as healthy as people say it is? Or Lucy who never agrees with Bob - is now nodding along with his comments because she’s no longer invested in the discussion and any decision is better than sitting in the sweaty conference room for another hour?  


Well, Bob and Lucy are exhibiting classic signs of “raising the white flag.” Raising the White Flag is a term used to describe self-limiting behavior – specifically when we are in a group or a team and we completely ‘check-out’ during a decision-making process. A team member surrenders to the group and no longer is an active participant in the decision at hand.    As a great manager, you need to both be aware of your team members raising the white flag (and stop it in its tracks), and create a team culture that helps to prevent it from happening in the first place.  




Why is there danger in raising the white flag? Because, teams function optimally when there is diversity of thought and perspectives, and optimal decision-making within a team occurs when each team member uninhibitedly and enthusiastically expresses his / her point of view. (See the classic review of the Challenger to fully appreciate how important it is to create a decision-making climate where people feel comfortable dissenting).


And, why do our team members raise the white flag?  You know how it goes - often a meeting runs too long, we’ve lost the thread, we can’t voice their opinion, our computer hates Zoom and the conference call keeps freezing. We’d rather that the decision happens - regardless of outcome - than spend more time discussing it.

Research shows that raising the white-flag often occurs in the following situations:

  • When there is someone with more expertise than us in the room

  • When someone makes a really compelling argument and we assume that others ‘have got it covered’

  • When we lack confidence in our ability to contribute meaningfully

  • When the decision that is being made doesn’t impact us directly or we think it is meaningless


Okay - so we understand the why, but onto the how: how do you make sure your team members aren’t letting their white flags fly?

  • Appoint a Devil’s Advocate for big discussions to ensure dissent is happening.

  • Get more and more ruthless and efficient in how you run meetings, especially in including only those people who really need to be there.

  • Have team members write-up (even briefly) their point-of-view or ideas before they come to the meeting.  And make sure everyone gets a chance to share.  

  • Don’t just ask: “Does everyone agree?” and let people nod their heads. Instead ask each person:  “Do you agree and point out one reason why this decision won’t work?”

  • And finally - call people out when they are self-limiting! Share this blog with your teams and when someone starts to check out, simply say “Hey Rachel, you’re raising the white flag.  What’s going through your mind?” Trust me, it’s much easier to use a neutral phrase than say “Hey Rachel, stop being a stinky teammate who is obviously annoyed by this conversation.”

There’s a phrase that I utter to myself when I decide to totally check-out of a situation:  “I’m so over it.” The phrase is almost a reflex at this point - I don’t even realize I’m saying it to myself or muttering it under my breath - but once that phrase rears its ugly head, I stop listening to what’s being talked about, perhaps get up to go to the bathroom, all of a sudden have an urgent text message I need to respond to, or just start to day-dream.  We each have a secret phrase that is our brain’s internal signal to check-out. It may be “I’m done.” or “Why am I here?” or “Screw this.” (or perhaps something a little bit more profane.)


Just as important as ensuring that your team members aren’t raising the white flag is being aware when you are raising the white flag. Once I realized what my white flag phrase was - “I’m so over it.” - I then started to notice the drivers that got me there, and more importantly, how I could get myself back into the conversation and discussion.  So, I’d challenge you to start to listen to that little voice in your head that pops up when you start to check out - and see what you can do about lowering your own white flag.


TL;DR

  • Raising the White Flag is a term used to describe self-limiting behavior, especially in a group setting.

  • When someone raises the white flag, he may withdraw from the conversation and essentially surrender to the group.  

  • There’s a risk to raising the white flag because optimal team functioning occurs when everyone has a voice and is able to speak up.

  • Ways to minimize the white flag include appointing a devil’s advocate, becoming more efficient with meetings, and simply - calling people out when they do it!

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