Leadership in a Zombie World

Zombies are everywhere these days. Watch “The Walking Dead,” “World War Z” or “Warm Bodies,” for instance. The fascination with zombies is no accident. Maybe the interest is fueled by the sheer desire to escape into a fantasy world. Or maybe there are certain characteristics they possess that we recognize as being familiar. Look at the workplace. While they don’t actually wander aimlessly, moaning and groaning, yearning to bite the necks and eat the vital parts—particularly the brains—of the vibrant beings around them, there are some employees who resemble zombies all too closely.

Who are these people? They are the ones who seem relatively innocuous at first blush, but upon further examination show distinct zombie symptoms such as:

  • The tendency to stare off into the distance periodically, as if waiting for some tasty morsel to come their way.
  • A desire to stick with the routine and a tremendous resistance to tackle anything new, challenging or complex.
  • The drive to band together in an effort to hunt down zombie conquests: new flesh to feed on.
  • An insatiable urge to infect others with the zombie virus.
  • An appetite to consume coupled with an absence of motivation to create.

According to Gallup, there are three types of employees. As of their most recent poll, 32.9% are engaged employees who work with passion and feel a profound connection to their company. They drive innovation and move the organization forward. Next, about 50.3% of employees are not engaged. They have essentially "checked out" and are sleepwalking through their workday, putting time - but not energy or passion - into their work. The last category, actively disengaged employees, makes up about 16.8% of the workforce. These employees aren't just unhappy at work - they're busy acting out their unhappiness. Every day, these workers undermine what their engaged coworkers accomplish."The Gallup organization has done extensive research on the topic of employee engagement and, as part of their results, have much to report about workplace zombies. They tell us that as of June 9, 2015, 31.5% of American workers are engaged.1 That is, 31.5% of American workers can be counted on to take initiative, experiment, take risks, innovate, stretch, grow and, generally speaking, strive for excellence on behalf of themselves and their companies. A smaller percentage of workers—the approximately 16.5% at the opposite end of the spectrum—are actively disengaged, which means that those workers actively undermine their organization’s success.

Those remaining—the 52% considered in the middle of the pack—are the zombies. The zombies do their jobs, to be sure. However, the way they go about work could be characterized as almost like sleepwalking. The true zombie cannot be accused of shirking his or her duty and therefore is not in danger of being fired any time soon. But, by the same token, the zombie cannot be counted on to “go the extra mile.” There’s no zest. No zeal. No breakthrough innovations. They offer just a run-of-the-mill effort, falling under the heading of “same old, same old.”

If all of these zombie characteristics don’t pose enough potential problems for the average supervisor or manager, adding to the challenge is the fact that zombies enjoy having company. After all, it’s no fun to be a zombie all by oneself. So, zombies recruit others to their same state—spreading the infection—by employing the bite of negativity and discontent, seasoned with a dash of cynicism. The supervisor or manager faced with zombies who are actively recruiting must put into place immediate and skillful countermeasures such as personalized attention, constructive feedback, challenging assignments that play to employees’ strengths, setting high standards for performance, and listening to employees’ ideas.

If Daniel Pink, motivation expert and author of “Drive” and “To Sell is Human,” is right—and we think he is—then the three keys to “flipping the switch” on employee motivation are:

  1. Autonomy: the freedom to find the path to results as opposed to being micro-managed every step of the way.
  2. Mastery: achieving a level of excellence at a task or set of tasks and elevating a sense of pride from achievement.
  3. Purpose: linking one’s activities with a higher purpose that holds meaning, giving even seemingly mundane activities a noble flavor.

The Gallup researchers also offered some strategies for waking up zombies and transforming them into full-fledged engaged workers. One discovery is that open and approachable managers have a higher percentage of engaged employees. Additionally, managers who set priorities and goals with employees encourage engagement. Finally, managers who match work with employees’ strengths and point out positive characteristics more easily flip the engagement switch.

But all of these robust and practical recommendations will do little good if the supervisor, manager or other leader is not engaged him or herself. As the research shows, 70% of the variance in employee engagement scores is due to the variance in managerial ability. American organizations are filled with some great managers, some good managers and some just plain bad ones. In addition, 35% of American managers are engaged, which is only slightly higher than the percentage of employees that fall into the same category.2 To confirm the impact that an engaged manager has on employees, consider this: Employees supervised by a highly engaged manager are 59% more likely to be engaged than employees of actively disengaged managers.

Why bother to convert zombies to fully engaged employees? Gallup has answers for us there as well: Raising the levels of engagement throughout an organization boosts numbers for customer ratings, productivity, profitability and quality while lowering rates of absenteeism, defects and shrinkage. It turns out that the business of turning zombies into highly engaged workers is very good business indeed.

1 http://www.gallup.com/poll/183545/employee-engagement-flat-may.aspx?utm_source=EMPLOYEE_ENGAGEMENT&utm_medium=topic&utm_campaign=tiles

2 http://www.gallup.com/businessjournal/182228/managers-engaged-jobs.aspx

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