How to Avoid the Zombie Apocalypse at Work

Bring back the productivity with motivation and collaboration

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

But there’s another threat—a threat from inside the organization. A threat that too many leaders don’t quite believe in, until it’s too late.

I’m talking about the zombie employee.

Unlike in the movies, they blend in, but you can still spot them with practice. They’re killing ideas. They’re not contributing. They’re devouring overall productivity. They’re not evil nor are they intentionally doing anything wrong; Zombies don’t sabotage a business on purpose. In fact, they aren’t to blame for their miserable state.

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

Outdated tools? Cut. Broken processes? Cut. Not fixing known problems? Two cuts for that one. Ineffective managers? Cut. No career trajectory? Big cut. Asking for feedback and taking zero action in response? Deep cut.

The zombie employee is the inevitable outcome of a feeling of futility. It’s a survival technique. When someone just can’t survive the workday anymore, they turn undead. (I want to point out that it’s very different from burnout, which many employees are understandably feeling during the pandemic. Burnout is a matter of employee wellness—and a very serious matter at that.)

When a business creates zombies, they don’t just transform the employee in a negative way. They kill innovation. They sicken the culture. All the required elements of a thriving business and the real benefit of a powerful employee experience never have a chance to flourish. And the worst part? It’s contagious. The ablest employees run while the rest stay put, get frustrated by a passionless and unmotivated cohort and get infected. It’s apocalyptic.

But there’s hope!

Unlike in the movies, zombification is not permanent. There’s a cure. And the first step toward obtaining the cure is deciding to do something about it.

Acknowledge the zombie

According to research (our own and that of others), when employees onboard with a feeling of futility, they feel like they don’t matter to the business. This is where managers are crucial. Too many managers focus on performance, not the person. Since the kind of disengaged employee we’re talking about will do enough to skate by but little else, most managers give them a stamp of approval. In doing so, the manager inadvertently validates the employee’s overall disengagement through an overly mechanical grasp of employee performance. In a similar vein, managers often focus on their own mandates and needs, rather than those of the employee.

The solution? The purview of managers needs to shift from mere monitoring and evaluation to coaching and mentorship. They also need to be empowered to address issues they see—especially those that make life harder for employees. After all, their real purpose is to serve as the connective tissue between employees and executive management, and they need to be seen by the employees as having both parties’ interests in mind.

Lastly, recognition programs help—a lot. Employees need recognition from leaders, but peer recognition is also vital in reinforcing a sense of belonging (i.e., being an important part of a team). Rewarding micro-actions and attitudes is also a strong motivator. But these things might not appear on the radar of managers and executives, because managers and executives don’t always see day-to-day goings-on. Peers do. Empowering colleagues to reward each other with some kind of currency (i.e., formal social recognition or small rewards) shows employees that they’re both seen and heard.

Make them more alive with happiness

Employers must address the root cause of the employee’s sense of futility. Through countless surveys and other feedback mechanisms, employees have expressed what’s wrong. The worst thing a business can do is sit on their feedback.

A good start? Solve the things that should be easy but are ridiculously painful. In particular, look for the things that serve the organization at the expense of the employee experience. Zombie-makers are the by-product of outdated tools and overly cumbersome processes.

Help them become human again

Zombies are made, not born. The best way to reverse the damage is to give them a reason to rethink their work—why it matters, but also why they matter to it. It’s not simply about making things easier (actually, new challenges can be very helpful). You have to include them. Your zombies most likely have ideas, albeit long-buried ones— and they’ll bring them out and clear away the zombie drool if they can put those ideas forward to their team.

Most transformation efforts are more effective and have the biggest impact through a collaborative, rather than top-down approach. Institute programs that foster culture, innovation and inspiration. Continue to feed the contagion through inaction, or concentrate your efforts on the cure.