In the military’s special operations selection process, instructors use the term “grey man” to describe a person who doesn’t draw attention to themselves. The grey man blends into the background but keeps up with the group. The grey man exceeds minimum expectations but doesn’t crush records. In essence, this person is a solid, consistent performer but doesn’t stand out.
Depending on the source or perspective, you’ll hear various opinions on whether it’s a good idea to be a grey person or not. From a survival standpoint, blending into the background allows you to avoid potentially dangerous situations, so in essence, it could be beneficial to be grey at times. From a team cohesion standpoint, being grey means that you embody a sense of humility, compliance and proficiency, all elements crucial for building a collaborative and respectful team environment.
But what happens if everyone is grey all the time? The challenge of the grey person concept comes when you introduce the need for change or disruptive innovation within a team or group. A group full of grey people means that no one is sticking their neck out to challenge the status quo. No one is leading the team to pursue greatness beyond what has already been defined. No one is resetting group expectations and raising the bar.
So, when should you be grey – and when is it acceptable to stand out?
Your true passion lies elsewhere
As a member of a team, you can tackle a task but it’s not what gets you out of bed in the morning. You have to make sure to pull your weight and get the job done well, but the task is not going to define your career or self-worth. As always, do your best and support the team while focusing your energy reserves on the areas where you know you excel.
Expectations don’t call for aggressive innovation
Accomplishing a task or challenge isn’t going to change the way things are done. You need to do something in order to meet expectations, but those expectations are not pliable. There are clear and defined rules around the outcome, and thus, innovation is not always necessary.
Another team member is an expert
Is there someone on the team who eats, sleeps and breathes a certain skill set or knowledge area? If so, it may mean that your participation should be supportive versus assertive. That doesn’t mean you can’t be grey while actively learning from that expert, especially if this is something you are passionate about. Think apprenticeship. With enough time and experience, you may become the expert in a future endeavor.
No one person should always swim against the tide as a change agent. Not only does it wear a person down, it may create a perception among team members as someone who is difficult and the opposite of a team player. Per a Japanese proverb, “The nail that sticks out shall be hammered down.”
Alternatively, always meeting expectations but never standing out may never allow you to truly excel. Self-esteem and self-satisfaction come from truly pushing yourself and encouraging others to try, do and think differently. Those who always blend in never reach their full potential. It’s time to define when you want to push and when to conform.
To start, take some time to identify areas that are personally important to you. If you have an interest in organizational change, look for opportunities to break out of the grey person mold and challenge the status quo. Or, if you witness an inequity or problem that compels you to take action, do it – stand out. Articulate your personal values. Once you have those values clearly defined and prioritized, make the commitment to be a change agent when appropriate. Learn, adapt and lead.
Take the time to map out what you are most passionate about in your career and personal life. Be absolutely great at those things. For everything else, strive to be good and take comfort in being the grey person.