Is Your Company Turning You Into a Corporate Zombie?

Last Updated Oct 6, 2010 5:04 PM EDT

Your company wants to turn you into a zombie. And you might be letting it happen.

Most employees are hired because they have personal vitality, which is a general sense of aliveness, creative thinking, communication style, presence, awareness, intellectual curiosity, and an untamed sense of humor. Then the subtle cultural cues set in as corporate zombie culture attempts to recruit another member. It becomes clear that those who make it around here focus on efficiency and bottom-line results. They work long hours. They send email at 2 a.m. They answer their work cell phone at any time of the day or night, unless they're on a plane. They get a gold star for working late, skipping the gym, and taking that conference call at 5 a.m. to accommodate people in different time zones.

As they work, they mostly respond rather than get ahead of situations. Their creativity level drops, and they spend less time reflecting. They laugh less. They look more and more like other people in the office. They begin to parrot what the top leaders say, but with less enthusiasm than the leaders. After all, a key to moving up is to not outshine the boss. That sparkle in their eyes dims. They become corporate zombies.

A friend of mine was recently dinged in a performance appraisal for being "too enthusiastic." Translation: be less alive, more like a zombie.

Corporate zombie cultures thrive on brain eating. Not literally, but through reprimands and random firings that instill terror and drive people to sacrifice more, be more loyal, and stand out less.

Why are we talking about this now? Because zombie cultures rise during recessions and jobless recoveries, when the fear of losing a job is at its highest.

So what do we do here?

The first step is to recognize what's happening. Companies send subtle messages, especially to their managers, that conformity and sacrifice of one's uniqueness are good. They are not.

Second, become aware of the cost. Personal vitality is one factor in what colleagues and I call That Which Cannot Be Delegated -- that intangible quality that commands respect and attention, and encourages others to listen to what you say.

That Which Cannot Be Delegated has a lot to do with the leadership. In the movie "The Social Network," Sean Parker had it. Eduardo Saverin did not, which is part of why he was taken out. Zuckerberg did not have it.

Among presidents, John Kennedy had That Which Cannot Be Delegated. So did Reagan and Clinton. Jimmy Carter didn't. Neither did the first Bush. Most people I talk with think the second Bush also lacked it.

How to develop That Which Cannot Be Delegated is the subject of another post. The key here is that if you let the zombie-ification happen to you, chances are, you're giving up That Which Cannot Be Delegated, impairing your ability to lead.

Third, say "hell no!" to zombie cultures. The most effective leaders I know got through layers of management without ever losing their personal vitality, but it was a constant struggle. Do what they did: Draw boundaries and train those around you about your priorities. If you don't answer your cell phone on the second ring, it might be because you have something more important to do. These actions actually increase your levels of personal vitality and That Which Cannot Be Delegated.

Fourth, create a culture of aliveness and innovation. Find and connect with others who have said "hell no!" to the zombie siren song, and build new tribes around them.

Again and again, zombie cultures fail because they are outmaneuvered by people that are still alive and still find joy in their work.

Have you ever seen a zombie culture or been a part of one? If so, I hope you'll share it in an email to me or in the comments below.

Photo courtesy thegeo, CC2.0.
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    Dave Logan is a USC faculty member, management consultant, and the best-selling author of four books including Tribal Leadership and The Three Laws of Performance. He is also Senior Partner of CultureSync, a management consulting firm, which he co-founded in 1997.