In many teaching situations, the instructor has to repeat the message five or six times before the audience internalizes it. Unless they use gray space, managers face the same challenge when they try to get team members to change their behavior. Phil Jones, who has decades of business experience and who wrote the book, "What to Say and How to Say It," reviewed how managers can use gray space to improve employee performance during a recent Manage Smarter podcast.
One common problem managers face is getting employees to buy into the desired behavioral change. Let’s say you’ve been coaching an employee to transition to the new CRM system. Maybe this employee has developed their own worksheet for tracking leads. When you first let them know the system is coming, they probably failed to sign up for training. Maybe they told you they were too busy closing the big deal you’ve been bugging them about.
Basically, they turned ownership for the issue back to you. As time has gone on, everyone else has transitioned to the new system. But this one employee continues to stonewall you, saying they don’t have time.
At this point, you’re wondering if the employee is just stubborn or if you were not insistent enough on the change. “It could be both,” says Jones. Don’t beat yourself up. You just need to change your thinking.
One way to change the status quo is to transform your usual style into a conversation that puts more responsibility on the employee. This strategy opens a gray space. The discussion no longer centers on what you want them to do and what they don’t want to do. It’s no longer a case of polarization between white and black, Jones explains.
Ask them how they think all of the other reps feel? They’re using the new system. But whenever they want to check a detail about one of this employee’s accounts, they have to ask for access to the private worksheet. The employee will likely realize that they’re not just jamming you up. They’re also making more work for their colleagues. Most employees don’t want to be in that position. At the point, they’ll think about buying into the new CRM system.
Use Feedback Questions to Expand Gray Space
Employees sometimes can’t see the need for change. They look at their work process through their own lens and, in some severe cases, may exhibit toxic behavior that falls in the category of Job Protector. This kind of individual, as we describe in our e‑book, The 13 Types of Toxic Salespeople, pushes back when any change is introduced into their daily routine.
If you’re new to managing a team that’s been working in the organization for a while, you can expect resistance. To ensure that their job will always be there, Job Protectors set up a ‘me versus the boss' scenario. You don’t have to buy into that conflict which can quickly turn into a stalemate. You can rise above the conflict by using feedback questions to expand the gray space in the employee’s thinking.
There’s a small, but important, difference between asking, “What do you think I should do?” and “What would you do if you were in my situation?” In the first case, “What you're asking somebody to do is to project their opinion on you in its entirety and then if you don't like the opinion, we've got a conflict,” says Jones. But when you ask an employee what they would do in your situation, they feel safe. They are free to imagine themselves facing an employee, for example, who refuses to convert to the new CRM system. You don’t have to take action on any of their recommendations, but you’ll have a clear idea of what the employee’s thinking. And, while they’re talking, they might actually start to see the situation from your perspective.
It’s never easy to get your reps to change their behavior. But if you introduce gray space into the conversation, they may think more about what they’re doing and why they might change.