Without engagement, organizations are fostering a zombie-like workforce, which can thwart all change efforts.

Like the movie monsters of the 1950s that held up the mirror to a society afraid that science would create monsters, zombies are our mirror today. Instead of science, the source of our monsters is technology gone too far—to where we yield too much of our thinking, communication, and interaction to what our technology prompts us to do. For many, our world is becoming predictable and routine (almost brainless)—and dare we say it: zombie-like. This is especially true in the workplace.

The good news is that times of change bring opportunity for a "human" resurgence and an opening for great strides in employee engagement. We all pay much more attention and we all think a lot more about what we do during times of change. This is the perfect time for leaders to focus on engagement programs for their team members because they are already engaged—some are trying to figure out how things will work and others are wondering how they can stop the change from happening to them. Regardless, they are no longer zombies.

Consider the following observations.

  • The world is changing faster than ever before with increasingly more information coming at us every day.
  • The business landscape is changing more rapidly and evolving new products, new competitors, and new models.
  • The workforce is the most experienced, well-educated, well-informed, and connected in history—and most workers have been through multiple change and engagement efforts.
  • Change is no longer seen as a transition from one stable environment to another, but a constant evolution moving ever closer to organizational agility, speed, and learning.
  • Employee engagement is not seen as a bolt-on program to ask employees how they feel or what they want. It is now a way for leaders, managers, and employees to work together for the success of the organization and its partners.

The most successful employee engagement occurs when engaged employees at all levels of the organization are empowered and encouraged to create their own change and are constantly looking for better, faster, and more effective ways to get the results everyone wants.

Employee engagement at all levels

When it comes to spurring employee engagement, many organizations already have taken many of the "big" steps (for example, reorganization, ERP systems, and mobile), and they've found most of the "low-hanging fruit" (for example, lean process improvement, and shared services). Now it's time to shift our attention and look for thousands of little factors—often invisible to people removed from the front lines—that add up and snowball into huge results. This approach relies on employee engagement at all levels.

  • Employees everywhere in the organization engaged in being the eyes, ears, brains, arms, and legs who see a challenge or barrier to doing the right things for customers, and take action to make it happen.
  • Managers who direct (rather than control), and let employees retain ownership of an idea from inception to implementation while coaching, supporting, and accelerating their team members' efforts.
  • Executives who remove barriers and break down silos so that individuals across the organization can connect to solve systemic problems within the organization.

How the zombies win

Let's start by looking at where many employee engagement efforts stall.

Zombies cannot see very far—there is no clear picture of what success looks like for the organization and how an individual's efforts can contribute to that success. Leaders tend to focus on the overall strategy and the large projects they will launch to achieve it, leaving the majority of the organization to focus on the day-to-day until it's time to go live with the change.

Success often is defined in esoteric terms (for example, "Be number 1 in our market" and "Increase profits or margins") that do not connect the strategy to the individual, so employees look at it and think that there's "nothing I can do at my level to help that happen."

They meander at their own pace—the change is driven through the hierarchy in independent efforts within silos. Even when leaders align on what success looks like, they tend to leave the leadership of those efforts to people within individual silos.

This lack of coordination across the organization, and often lack of alignment, translates into inconsistent and often conflicting efforts, priorities, practices, and interpretations by those below the executive levels. It creates confusion, frustration, and complacency at multiple levels.

They divide and conquer the humans—laggards outnumber and overwhelm the early adopters. With any change, there are early adopters who will jump on an idea. There also are those who will wait and see, and those who will actively resist.

The latter two groups almost always outnumber the former at the start. In the name of consensus, leaders often slow the progress of early adopters in a futile effort to get the laggards onboard. This is why efforts often launch with great fanfare only to fizzle and die.

They distract the human—day-to-day distractions make it difficult to keep up with the real demands of today, let alone spend time engaging in building for tomorrow.

This distraction in the workplace is all the nonvalue-added time and effort lost in meetings (often set once a week for no exact purpose), the dreaded meetings before the meetings, processes with multiple levels of approvals and checkpoints, and even the daily flood of emails. These all severely limit the effectiveness of even the most engaged employee.

How humans win

So how can we ensure that our employee engagement programs are successful?

Create clarity. Clarity is the key to speed. It's true when we drive our cars and it's true at work. Leaders should create a clear—and specific—picture of success that will result from the new strategy.

Use words that create pictures in people's heads (not jargon) and define success that is both bold and important. Clarity also is about outlining a transparent line of sight between the goal and individual contributions that can be made so that early adopters will want to take the first steps.

Give permission. If a new strategy is how an organization will win, shouldn't that be part of everyone's job? Leaders often are too far removed from the work at the front line to see every opportunity.

Employees are most engaged when they feel respected and trusted by their bosses. Giving employees explicit permission to do the things that are consistent with the new strategic goals is a prerequisite to finding those wins that create results.

Forget about consensus. Laggards and late adopters only will slow you down. Invite everyone to participate, but don't wait for everyone to get onboard. When the executive leaders align on the clear definition of success under the new strategy, no one in leadership or management should have the authority to stop someone in the organization from contributing to what the executive leadership has defined as strategically important goals.

Many laggards and late adopters will get onboard when they see the momentum build. Some will not, and that may mean that both parties would be better off if they parted ways.

Redefine the role of managers in leading change. Management plays a critical role in employee engagement and in succeeding in new strategies. They must provide support and enable those early adopters by protecting the early adopter from the naysayers, so the effort has time to show real progress. Early adopters tend to be a quiet bunch as they figure things out, while laggards tend to be vocal about their opposition and try to build enough support to kill the effort.

Break through the clutter. We get hundreds, if not thousands, of emails, texts, tweets, and updates every day. We also are good at detecting jargon, double-talk, and clichés. As the messages get watered down and filtered, leaders need to have real, and direct, conversations about the new strategy and the picture of success.

They need to break through reviews and filters by telling personal stories, explaining why the new strategy matters, and conveying the desire to win for the right reasons. This must be done in a way that connects with both employees' analytical brains and emotional hearts.

Show progress. When we install new software on our smartphones or computers, download a movie or song, and even order pizza online, we see a progress bar to show that something is happening and how far along the effort is. We all have become accustomed to these updates.

Projects at work should take a cue from this and show early progress. Illustrate the wins that show plans are progressing and that the change is real, and provide examples and ideas of what successful individual contributions look like.

Coordinate efforts of early adopters. Gather your early adopters together either physically or virtually. All engagement and change efforts start off feeling like "one alone in the world." Creating a network of people who can support one another, learn from one another, and copy and paste ideas across organizational silos helps to create a critical mass of people who are coordinated in their efforts. It will help overcome all the barriers the organizational hierarchy creates.

Back to a human workforce

Some will say the zombie apocalypse is fantasy or fiction. Some will say that if it is real, it has not happened yet.

Look around your workplace. Look at how people think about their work and how they spend their time. Are they trying to find new ways to do things better, faster, more effectively, and with less frustration?

Consider the organization's leadership team, culture, policies, and procedures that are in place. Are they engaging employees to use all of their brains, talents, experiences, and ideas to make the organization better tomorrow than it is today? The good news is that with the world moving faster and faster, the individual zombies and the places they work are easy to spot.

When we are successful in employee engagement, the zombies are easy to outsmart and outrun. Even better is that worker zombies can be turned back into humans if we stimulate their brains and hearts in meaningful ways.


Seven Ways to Foster Employee Engagement

  1. Provide layered learning to develop employee skills.
  2. Rate performance properly.
  3. Remove negative obstacles or policies that affect engagement.
  4. Leverage your employees’ distinct abilities.
  5. Align leadership styles and competencies to motivate and enable employees.
  6. Focus on nonmonetary rewards such as career growth, recognition, and learning.
  7. Create a clear link between performance and rewards.

Nurture the Game-Changers

The rules of today's workforce are changing the game for employers. There is a new impatience for frustration and a greater mobility for those who want to and can do more, better, now.

Workers today want to do well for the business and do good for themselves and their community. They want their jobs to matter. They want to make a difference, both internally and externally.

Leaders who recognize this talent and give them latitude to drive change inside the organization will find them to be powerful accelerators. Alternatively, management that forces those leaders at all levels into the rigid policies and procedures will see their game-changers walk out the door—likely to a start-up that might disrupt the business they just left.

Challenge Every Minute

We work with our clients' leadership teams to frame a strategic opportunity in ways that are clear, compelling, and engaging. That is the first step in creating urgency for a new strategy and engaging their employees to help make it happen.

One client was facing pressure to be more efficient, of higher quality, and faster to market with new products. Traditional efforts in transforming new product development and lean had shown great results early on, but had plateaued.

As a result, the leadership team created an opportunity and translated it into a vision of success that used plain language to connect the larger strategic goals to individual contributions. Instead of talking about efficiencies, productivity, or lean, they framed the vision this way: "Trust is the foundation for speed and innovation. We challenge every minute and every dollar in our operation. We empower and encourage one another to eliminate waste and nonvalue-added activity in everything we do, no matter how big or small. By making individual contributions, learning from our successes, we will create real results that are meaningful, sustainable, and fun."