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Bring Workplace Zombies Back from the Undead

By Rich Wellins, Ph.D.

Richard S. Wellins, Ph.D.

I love Halloween. When I was a kid, I relished getting the Milky Ways, Snickers bars, and M&Ms. Of course, back then you got an entire bar or package. Not the mini-stuff you buy today. Not that it matters much because the kids who ring our doorbell are not bashful about helping themselves to three or four pieces!

Today, at 65, I have stopped trick-or-treating. I gave it up at 63:)

ZombieNow I go to costume parties. This year I was thinking of choosing between Hillary and Donald. Not to get political, but neither seems an ideal choice.

Instead, I am opting to dress as a zombie, in part because they seem popular, and also to pay homage to my new book, Your First Leadership Job. The book is aimed at better preparing first-time front line leaders to better handle their new role.

In the book, my co-author and I, Tacy Byham, have a section of how leaders can deal with toxic employees.

We profile different types of toxic workers, such as the wall flower, the black cloud, or the selfies. To be clear, we are quick to point out that toxic associates are far from the norm. But, they can drain a new leader's time and energy.

Who are the workplace zombies?

Of all the toxic employee types, none have caused me and many of my fellow leaders as much trouble as the zombie. The zombie was made popular by George Romero's film “The Night of the Living Dead,” along with a host of other books and movies. The zombie is a fictional undead person created through the reanimation of the human corpse...they are gross!

What they do to infect us

In our book, we portray workplace zombies as "those that drag their feet, stare through dull, lifeless eyes, and go through the motions of work until it is time to shut down."

They really are the epitome of the disengaged employee: doing as little as possible, no emotions--either positive or negative, and out the door ten minutes before the end of the workday. Figures vary, but since the inception of "magic employee engagement measures," it still seems that about 30 percent of the workforce or more is actively unengaged. Some are true zombies, costing our companies millions. And zombies are especially good at infecting entire work teams.

How can we bring them back to life

There is one big similarity between fictional zombies and those at work: No zombie ever really wanted to be a zombie. They were not born that way. They did not start out their lives as zombies.

The same is true in the workplace. The majority of zombies became zombies because of poor leadership. Their bosses were un-empowering, refused to listen, took all the credit, and never encouraged or recognized innovation. No wonder zombies have a "poor attitude"!

But there is also one big difference. Unlike the fictional zombies in the movies, workplace zombies can be brought back from the undead (or prevented in the first place).

As we discuss in our book, leaders can rely on a proven set of turnaround behaviors. They should maintain and enhance their employees’ self-esteem and see if they can get their employees to open up and share what is weighing them down. They need to listen and respond to their concerns with empathy. Perhaps they are plain tired and need a new and refreshing assignment.

I can remember a discussion with a team member that was in danger of turning into a zombie. She was a bright and talented employee, but she was in a rut. So I crafted a new project for her that pulled her out of her comfort zone and offered new challenges for her to overcome. She approached the project with renewed energy and enthusiasm.

For zombies, and any other type of difficult employee, it is critical to focus on the dysfunctional behavior, not the person. These very same behaviors can save an employee from becoming a zombie in the first place.

Our suggestions are not tricks. If they were easy in practice we would all be perfect leaders. But with a combination of self insight and a willingness to try out some new techniques, every leader can enjoy some of the treats.

Have a happy and scary Halloween!

Posted: 20 Oct, 2016,
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