In my experience, 30+ years of working with organizations the workplace tends to operate with a leader and some workers and it appears something like this:
Every workplace has its share of involved and engaged workers, the wagon pushers who simply get things done and who often share Round Wheel Ideas for continuous improvement. But communications is often difficult and wagon pushers simply get tired of pushing and talking with no changes happening. Top performers keep pushing forward, but not so much all the others.
Leaders pull and expect their people to push, and every manager needs people who are in touch, involved and engaged in overall initiatives of rolling forward. However, a zillion different studies show that this is not a common happening and what does exist is a broad range of involvement and engagement levels among employees.
Un-engagement is a common phenomenon.
People get less involved and motivated over time.
While top performers always exist, many or most employees will be only somewhat engaged and a few will be very dis-engaged. We can think of the latter as our Zombies – they walk around with minimal effectiveness, possibly infecting others with their attitudes and behaviors. You can probably identify these Zombies in your own workplace as they are not behind you and the wagon. They are usually not even in the picture!
Zombies in the workplace, though, are generally not bad people, in actuality, but they are also not really good employees. And it is not an issue of capability since they could do the job if they had a reason to do better.
So, what do you do? How does one manage to improve performance results? Let me share some simple ideas…
One, always recognize the performance of top performers. They have their own motivations and a key for you is to not get in their way. They sometimes bend the rules a bit, so let that slide or change your processes and procedures to generate more of these Round Wheels. They look to peers for recognition, so keep performance feedback flowing. However, do be careful about adding any extrinsic rewards to the workplace, since that can change the environment in negative ways.
The Zombies? You probably avoid them. You might try the old “transfer” strategy and pawn them off onto another company workgroup. You should change the performance feedback they receive and be sure that they can compare their own data to realistic expected results. Often, they don’t get that information in effective ways and feedback is what drives performance results.
Your real leverage comes from better management of the “Slinks.” Unlike Zombies, Slinks have not yet turned. They are simply in the middle of the performance and contribution curve and are the average employees. They are not those you immediately think to use as team leaders or project managers. Look to better involve and engage them, aligning them more closely to your goals and objectives to vaccinate them against “zombie-sickness.” Ask them for involvement on teams and give them opportunities to implement workplace improvements.
Basically, most people want to meet expectations and to feel good about their work. A few try to justify their poor results by blaming past occurrences or work problems, but they can be re-aligned and re-engaged with effective performance measurement aligned with realistic goals and objectives. Most people are rational and well-meaning.
Some Zombies may simply need to work elsewhere as they are too far gone to be healed by what your medicine can realistically do. The old joke is that research statistics find that one out of every three people has suffered from mental illness, so just look around!
Often, the entire workplace will breathe easier once a Zombie exits the stage. Everyone knows who they are and where they lurk…
Lastly, make sure that YOU are not in Zombie mode, wandering aimlessly and repeatedly doing the same things while expecting different results. Work to better involve and align people to shared goals, building trust by setting expectations and then meeting those commitments.
It reminds me of our Christopher Columbus Award
Remember this simple idea:
“Trust is the Residue of Promised Fulfilled.”
And make sure that your behavior as well as theirs aligns neatly with your desired outcomes, expected results, and defined expectations.
You can find more information about our tools to better engage people in performance improvement here:
And Have FUN Out There, too!
Dr. Scott Simmerman is a designer of team building games and organization improvement tools. Managing Partner of Performance Management Company since 1984, he is an experienced presenter and consultant.
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