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Beware of your walking dead

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By Greg Barnett, PhD

Fall is quickly flying by as Halloween sneaks up and, more importantly, another season of The Walking Dead is in full force. If you’re like me, you are glued to the TV on Sunday nights entranced by the frantic, dire, intense nature of the show. If you aren’t like me and don’t watch the show, here’s the basic premise…Someone is infected, they turn into a zombie, that zombie bites someone else, and then there is a whole zombie herd bearing down on all the innocent folk. And then there are the survivors, pockets of people kept alive by leaders even during the darkest times. Sounds scary? To me it sounds a lot like life in an organization that has lost its way.

In my time of consulting with organizations of all shapes and sizes, I have had the misfortune of watching the walking dead become reality in companies that have lost their way culturally. It starts when leaders are blind to the disengagement plague that starts to destroy the hearts and souls of their best talent. And even when the signs are there, they fail to react quickly enough and take charge before they have a full-on disengagement epidemic. Many times they blame the disengaged zombies themselves instead of taking charge and realizing that people want to survive. It typically looks like this:

  1. The organization hits rough times, shows poor leadership, promotes the wrong people, makes bad decisions, or generally stops listening or showing concern about its employees.
  2. A small group of people quickly become disengaged. They see the direction and feel no hope. Some of them are lucky and leave quickly. But many are left behind. 
  3. The leftovers start to spread their disengagement infection to other employees by pointing out the impending despair and doom. Discussions about the company’s demise, the lack of quality leaders, poor career opportunities, too much work and not enough pay start to flourish.
  4. Soon, enough people are infected with negativity and dissatisfaction that a disengagement zombie herd begins to form. That’s when it all gets dangerous and can be the point of no return.
  5. Just as zombie herds do, people start to follow each other’s lead. Some just cut back on their creativity and work effort, and put themselves on autopilot. Others search for new life in other organizations and eventually leave. Managers start to commiserate instead of champion a positive message. And the few that weren’t infected are left to fend for themselves, doing additional work to make up for their lost compatriots.
  6. Eventually there comes a point where one of two things happen. The company fails…It doesn’t happen quickly and doesn’t mean bankruptcy, but with no innovation, passion or engagement, a lot is lost.  Or B. New leaders arise to deal with the situation and lead the survivors to safety.

It is a sad story that repeats itself often and unnecessarily in organizational life. While the severity for the business varies, the pain is heavy for both the disengaged and those trying to remain engaged. 

But it can be prevented. Just like on The Walking Dead, there are certain types of people that understand the situation and know how to keep their employees engaged – even during tough times. These leaders can’t save them all, but they can save some of the most important people.

I’m not saying that a Rick type is the right choice to save a disengaged workforce (if you don’t watch, he is quite the realist), but they need someone like him to fight for their survival. Maybe Carol is a better fit, as she delivers casseroles but still makes the tough choices when the survival of her employees is on the line. Regardless, the right leaders understand people, their emotions and their individual needs. They also find positivity in the face of hardship and paint a future that is bright and within reach. And they are courageous in front of others, showing employees that it’s worth fighting longer.

It takes people-skilled leadership and an employee-first philosophy to keep disengagement zombies at bay and the survivors working hard for that better future around the corner. 

Who do you think would be the best leader when the disengagement zombie herd starts building in your organization?  

Greg is the SVP of science at PI.

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