Zombies, ghosts and vampires
Handling these denizens of organizational culture
As an optimist, I’m a sucker for movies with happy endings. I’m aware this makes me supremely uncool. If we’re selecting a movie to watch, I’ll recoil if you suggest a horror film. As a kid one of my cousins was obssessed with old horror films. So I sat through movie after movie, each more terrifying than the last. Watching between my fingers or with the sound off didn’t help. They haunted me for years, especially the zombies from The Night of the Living Dead and the invisible life form that stole human brains in Fiend Without a Face. The latter put me off horror movies for life. Even writing about this film years later makes me shiver. Apparently, others agree. The most terrifying part of the story was that the creature was invisible, killing its victims without them ever seeing it.
Today’s edition was inspired by those old horror films, especially the last one. Like in many horror films, good, well-meaning people in companies can turn to negative behavior. My hope is to make visible three negative behaviors of organizational life that damage cultures. These behaviors can creep up unexpectedly. Good, well-meaning people can find themselves acting in one of these roles often because they aren’t a match with the organization or because there’s something going on in their personal that needs addressing.
Zombie behavior comes from those who have mentally checked out but are still physically at the company. The dissonance is confusing. They seem like they want to be here but are disengaged from the work. They’re once productive employees who have turned apathetic. They might get their work done but just the minimum, placing more burdens on others. These folks may also make continual complaints. When you try to take action to resolve their unhappiness it never seems to resolve the issue. Their apathetic stance might turn angry or aimed at taking others down as they leave. Never underestimate the power a zombie can inflict on the culture.
These are folks whose behavior has turned so negative it’s downright toxic. Their actions create division, fear and organizational anxiety — sucking out all the positive energy. The toxic behavior causes otherwise engaged team members to flee the company. Often it’s something in their personal life that’s driving the vampiric behavior. This brings out our empathy and can make us delay in taking action. Vampire behavior can be deadly for cultures. Never delay in addressing it. In the meanwhile, don’t forget to triage as others are surely feeling the effects. If the behavior continues for long, others are at risk for becoming zombies or even resoting to vampiric behavior themselves.
The third type is more tricky because they’re members who have already left but still haunt the company — often because of they had a big impact while there. Given their outsized impact, these apparitions still have a presence in the organizational culture. There are some ghosts who leave a positive lasting legacy. We miss them. The bigger the impact, the more their loss is felt. Unless the void is filled, these kinds of ghosts can speed up departures on the team. After someone with negative behavior leaves we breathe a sigh of relief but the impact can reverberate long after they’re gone. The imprint of a micromanaging ghost leader can make people reticent to take action or scared to speak up. Unless trust is rebuilt, these kind of ghosts will have a lingering effect on the team.
These denizens of organizational culture probably aren’t surprising. We’ve all experienced this behavior. Still, it’s good to remind ourselves so we can readily spot this behavior. What might be unexpected is the amount of time leaders spend dealing with it. We come in to leadership thinking strategy is the key lever for success. Strategy is essential. It’s a common topic in my conversations with leaders but more often it’s negative behavior that’s become an obstacle to collaboration, goals and a healthy workplace. No strategy can overcome corrosive behavior. Dealing with it consumes massive amounts of leader’s time, distracting them from those strategic initiatives. In the worst cases, leaders can spend 5-10 hours a week (or more) dealing with the negative behavior of just one person. By the way, leaders aren’t exempt — they can also become a zombie, vampire or ghost. When this happens it’s much more difficult for everyone. This makes it more critical to address immediately.
In traditional horror films the resolution is often to kill the person (or creature) with the dangerous behavior. We might be tempted to follow this pattern, though obviously more metaphorically. In organizational life sometimes firing the person with the offending behavior is the right choice but it’s not always practical or warranted.
Some zombies can become re-engaged and productive. Try to bring them back but recognize when they might be too far gone. The key with vampires is minimizing the impact of their behavior. Once identified, don’t let it linger. When the harm to others is clear, you might just need to show them the door. For positive ghosts, fill the void with other positive examples and make sure a vampire hasn’t accidentally filled it instead. To blunt the lingering effect of negative ghosts, work to rebuild trust with those who worked most closely with them.
A movie that borrows from this genre that shows a different resolution is Warm Bodies, a romantic comedy film about zombies. In this film, some are able to become human again. It’s one in the genre I actually love because it shows how wounds can be healed with a bit of empathy and real connection. Not everyone will make it but some will. The key is to identify the behavior so it doesn’t sneak up on your like those creatures from my horror film nemesis. When you make negative behavior visible, you have a better chance of resolving it.
What else to read
Watching horror films might be good for your health (still a hard pass for me).
While I lean towards optimistic realist, there’s benefits to being a pessimist.
People would rather be electrically shocked than be alone with their thoughts.
Written by Suzan Bond, a leadership coach and former COO. Based in Brooklyn. You can find me elsewhere on Twitter and Medium. Comments or questions about leadership or scaling startups? Send me a note.