The right way to keep away from the zombie apocalypse at work

Executives are aware of the threats they face. The competition. The pandemic. The other 100 problems that keep them up at night.

But there is another threat – an internal threat. A threat that too many leaders don't believe in until it's too late.

I'm talking about the zombie employee.

Unlike the movies, they blend in, but you can still spot them with practice. You kill ideas. You don't contribute. They devour overall productivity. They are not angry, nor are they doing anything wrong on purpose. Zombies don't intentionally sabotage a company. In fact, they are not responsible for their miserable condition.

No, the business itself created them. It was a zombification through a thousand paper cuts.

Outdated tools? Cut. Broken processes? Cut. Can't fix known issues? Two cuts for this one. Ineffective managers? Cut. No career? Great cut. Ask for feedback and take no action? Deep cut.

The zombie employee is the inevitable result of a sense of futility. It's a survival technique. If someone just can't survive the working day, they become undead. (I'd like to point out that it is very different from the burnout that many employees understandably experience during the pandemic. Burnout is a matter of employee wellbeing – and a very serious matter.)

When a company creates zombies, it doesn't just negatively transform the employee. You kill innovation. They make the culture sick. All of the required elements of a thriving business and the real benefits of a high performing employee experience never stand a chance to flourish. And the worst? It's contagious. The most capable employees run while the rest stay, get frustrated and infected by a dispassionate and unmotivated cohort. It's apocalyptic.

But there is hope!

Unlike in the films, the zombification is not permanent. There is a cure. And the first step in achieving healing is making a decision to do something about it.

Confirm the zombie

Research (ours and others') has shown that employees who are on board with a sense of futility do not feel important to the company. This is where managers are crucial. Too many managers focus on the performance, not the person. Since the type of laid-off employee we're talking about is enough to skate little else, most managers give them a stamp of approval. In doing so, the manager inadvertently validates the general separation of the employee by overly mechanical recording of employee performance. Similarly, managers often focus on their own mandates and needs rather than those of the employee.

The solution? The manager's remit needs to be shifted from mere monitoring and evaluation to coaching and mentoring. They also need to be empowered to address issues they see – especially those that make life difficult for employees. After all, their real purpose is to act as a connective tissue between employees and senior management, and they need to be viewed by employees in a way that takes into account the interests of both parties.

After all, recognition programs help a lot. Employees need managerial approval, but peer approval is also important in building a sense of belonging (i.e. being an important part of a team). The rewards of micro-actions and attitudes are also a powerful motivator. However, these things may not appear on managers and executives' radar because managers and executives do not always see what is going on on a daily basis. Peers do. Empowering colleagues to reward one another with currency (i.e., formal social recognition or small rewards) shows employees that they are both seen and heard.

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