I worked recently with a CEO (let’s call her Elaine) who was deeply confounded by a sudden change in her effectiveness. Her niche organization had found solid business footing with steady margins, but available-now resources and the ability to scale with a parent organization had made acquisition enticing. After much deliberation, she agreed to join a strong brand with deep pockets that would allow for greater integration across a number of adjacent businesses. Once the dust settled, despite a shining entrepreneurial career, Elaine found that her leadership skills were not getting traction in this new context.

As the new operating relationship unfolded, Elaine found herself in a dicey situation. She was getting edged out of strategy meetings that involved her organization, she was encouraged to play support roles in sales meetings, and prospectus information was increasingly siloed out of her reach. The results she was so accustomed to earning felt as if they were slipping away. Without doing anything wrong – and while pouring every ounce of results-focus she had into being successful – Elaine had entered what we call the ‘grey zone.’

There are few experiences quite as exasperating as applying all the rigor, intellect and energy you can muster to achieving an outcome…and finding the results fall short. It’s even worse when you give everything you have, and your efforts barely create a ripple of impact. Those empty times when the tire has fully lost contact with the pavement can be heartbreaking and disempowering.  But these moments are also great opportunities for learning. The most challenging leadership experiences are almost always excellent vehicles for growth, if effectively translated into applicable learning and then successfully integrated into one’s leadership.

What is the ‘grey zone’?

Leaders fall into the ‘grey zone’ when they employ an approach that was effective in another context to a new challenge – and it doesn’t work. This often leaves executives vexed by their lack of effectiveness, and struggling to figure out why their efforts fell short. In these moments, it’s hard for them to navigate the way back into their sweet spot. Common entry points to the grey zone include ‘playing a game’ that was successful in the past, over-leveraging a strength, or misperceiving others’ intent, rather than reading the current context and adapting accordingly.

Falling into the ‘grey zone’

Through partnerships with leaders like Elaine, we see clear patterns around how leaders get in their own way, restrict their impact, and make inaccurate assumptions about the landscape being navigated – all which result in being in the grey zone putting in maximum effort with negligible impact. Commonly, these assumptions are based on miscalibrations of ‘IQ’ and ‘EQ,’ or how we integrate our analytical acumen with our emotional intelligence to arrive at wise insights. Consistently doing this well is akin to catching lighting in a bottle; less than 1 percent of leaders effectively maintain high levels of both results-focus and relationship-focus. Thus, the grey zone is an easy trap to fall into, and identifying the right pivots to get out of it is an important skill to sharpen.

Are you playing the right game?

If you find yourself in the grey zone, the first step to navigating a path out  (and re-calibrating IQ and EQ) is to identify ways of better integrating yourself into the challenges you face. Keep in mind that the goal in these moments is to bring more of your humanity into your leadership, not change who you are as a human. Doing so requires a deeper examination of the leadership approach: what actions are reflexive in the current circumstances; where are your blind spots; and what biases are in play? Rather than looking for silver bullets and aspirational goals, the work is often about better understanding the new landscape, and the interpersonal and strategic adaptations necessary to succeed in this new environment.

Getting out of the grey zone by asking better questions

Our work with senior leaders and teams focuses on identifying the right adaptations at the right moments to gain control of the environment and translate leadership into results. In these moments, I have found that answering three fundamental questions will help any leader develop a clear headspace to see their way out of the grey zone:

Who are you?

What are your innermost motivations in the face of the current circumstances? What level of focus and energy do you want to give, now and going forward? What is your preferred risk/reward ratio? What actions can you take when your balance of ‘IQ’ and ‘EQ’ has become miscalibrated? What level of control do you prefer to have over your organization? What organizational responsibilities do you prefer not to own?

Why are you here?

How does this moment play into your career and aspirations? What’s negotiable and what isn’t? What will you ask for, what will you take, and what will be done if these actions are ineffective? How is this a pivot point towards broader opportunities?

What gifts are embedded in this moment?

What undeveloped elements of your leadership is this situation exposing? What lessons and opportunities are embedded in the experience that present an opportunity to promote both professional and personal growth? Where could you channel more empathy, support, and collaboration in your working relationships? What can you take away from the current experiences and translate into your broader leadership approach?

Answering those challenging questions doesn’t always yield immediate results, but it does lead to a clearer sense of what adaptations you can make to bring your leadership out of the grey zone. Addressing these questions did not magically snap Elaine back into achieving results the very next day; however, it did clarify her context, sharpen her focus on the key actions she needed to take, and give her greater resolve to work her plan. She began to adapt in new ways and carve a line through the ambiguity she was facing.

Have you ever found yourself in the ‘grey zone’? What did you do to navigate your way out of the ambiguity? What did you achieve? Tell us in the comments below!