Have Zombies Attacked Your Organization?

Certain behaviors within your organization can severely impact your effectiveness as a leader. Zombie-like attitudes and actions on the work team need to be identified and handled as quickly as possible.

business zombie thinkstock
Credit: Thinkstock

Does it feel like zombies have attacked your organization? Is there a population of walking dead holding you back and causing poor performance?

For quite some time, I have advocated and observed that among most work teams with any size, there will be a distribution of talent that looks something like this:

1. The top 20 percent – the folks you can always count on, and the ones you tend to turn to most often.

2. The bottom 20 percent - employees who have developed behavior patterns that are repeated regularly and for who there is some form of disciplinary action pending or being written as we speak. If they are just short of disciplinary action, at least you know their performance will be the same most of the time. It's low performance, but nonetheless the same.

3. The middle 60 percent - these people can be scary. This is where the zombies first appear. One day Joe or Jill is just fine, then tomorrow they come to work with serious attitude problems or something that looks like a "quit and stay" mindset.

The first group is great! You get a lot done with these people with little, if any, guidance and supervision. These are your rock stars. Unfortunately, these are the first ones to jump ship for better offers, especially when the business climate at your company gets tight.

The second group can consume management time in order to deal with the problems. This is where your greatest turnover happens. Finding someone in this group usually can mean the hiring process missed some big red flags. However, once a person gets identified as being in this group, policy and HR programs usually should be initiated to either redeem the staff member or show them the door.

From my experience the last group, and arguably your middle tier, is the toughest to manage. If we apply a bell curve to just this 60 percent of your team, you will have high-end and low-end performers. The trouble though is knowing who will fall where on that curve on any given day. Oh yes, many dedicated souls in this group hit a "stride" and produce well enough day after day, but the trouble is the ones who seem fine one day then just show up way off the chart the next.

This is when it seems like a zombie has bitten them and taken over their being. These new zombies do not eat brains like the ones in books and movies, but they consume brain power from leadership by causing problems. Work gets skipped or dropped, quality drops off, or interpersonal spats arise. Deadlines start suffering.

Letting these zombies stroll through your work area day after day can disrupt otherwise good team chemistry. Colleagues who one day seemed to be working well together start arguing over trivial matters like who failed to fill the copy paper last or who cooked fish in the microwave.

The zombie walk has its physical evidence too. Slow, lethargic behavior starts to emerge. Energy seems zapped. This condition is very contagious. Strong dedicated workers like those in group one do not easily influence the zombie. Rather, the zombie makes the good person think of the questions, "Why me? Why should I keep busting my you-know-what while Z-Man gets by with everything, doing nothing?” 

As leaders in the workplace, our challenge is to have ways to quickly identify this zombie-like behavior. Then we need the capacity (and willingness) to swiftly address the individual, make a plan for corrective action, and, ultimately, make the tough call to rid our team of anyone who does not respond to the correction.

I say all of this fully aware of HR requirements for coaching and discipline. It can be time consuming, but the longer term cost of allowing zombies to roam in your organization is far greater.

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