When I was a kid I went to summer camp in South Jersey, on a farm in a remote spot in Salem County. It’s an arts and music camp. I sang in my first opera there. I was eleven, and singing with the Pittsburgh Symphony in a children’s choir at the outdoor music festival in Ambler, Pennsylvania.
We sang and played instruments, folk-danced and did arts and crafts all day. My brothers were at camp too, only hanging out in a shack on a ham radio all day. We did farm work, picking corn and feeding piglets. Our counselors were so chill they let us make enormous mudslides and play Capture the Flag at midnight.
Those late-night games of Capture the Flag were the best. There’s stealth and strategy and good old foolish bravery in a game like that. We’d get back to our cabins soaked and filthy and completely worn out, feeling victorious. I’ve felt that way (without the soaked and filthy part) after operas and musical theatre productions, not all the time but once in a while. I’ve felt that feeling in business when a team of us has done something insane and fantastic and triumphant. That’s the best part of business. I don’t know why there isn’t more Capture the Flag exhilaration in business all the time — and why its absence wouldn’t be a major topic of conversation, too.
I only ever remember doing anything important and worthy when I was in Capture the Flag mode, energized and happy to be alive. That’s the only way any team or individual has ever accomplished anything significant. When did you ever see a scientific breakthrough that came from a scientist who really didn’t give a dang about his subject? The answer is never. If we could get our heads out of the policy manual and the operating plan, we’d remember that it’s only when people are excited and turned on about their project that anything good results.
Lately I’ve been dismayed by a tidal wave of zombie thinking all over the business landscape. People write and tell us stories. “They just implemented a policy here that says you can’t check your Facebook, watch videos, listen to a song, email a friend or text anyone not related to your work for any non-emergency reason, on pain of termination,” writes one correspondent.
Here’s a company that hired you and trusts you to carry its flag. Why wouldn’t they also trust you to know when you need a mental break? I’d be dead if I didn’t listen to songs throughout the day. I have headphones. Why on earth would an employer that trusts its employees (since they hired each one of them) worry about the personal, musical inspiration fueling its team members’ output?
It’s time to save business from the zombies who want to turn it from a fizzy, fascinating and adventurous human thing into a dead, frozen, stiff, grey, boring, lifeless cadaver. They want business to be as dull, gray, and formal as they are. That’s fear. Why don’t we name it? Managers who don’t know how to relate to other people, how to motivate a team and share some of the flame with their teammates, use the big hammer to scare their subordinates into grudging compliance. That’s bad business, and when we see that kind of thing happening around us, we need to talk about it.
“But I’m afraid, Liz, to name the elephant in the room sometimes,” you might be thinking. I’m sympathetic. I remember that fear. I remember adrenaline shooting through my veins when I thought “I have to say something. I have no choice!” I did. I spoke up. What I said wasn’t always popular, but I slept easily on my pillow that night.
Here’s the thing: when you don’t speak up in the midst of zombie activity, you turn into a zombie yourself.
I’m sure you’ve seen a zombie movie or two in your time. Zombies infect other people, if they don’t eat them, and turn them into zombies too. In some variations, zombies don’t know they’re zombies. You see a lot of that in the business world.
People think that fearful zombie workplaces are only a feature of big companies. Not so! Some big employers are more human than smaller ones. The degree of zombietude in an organization has less to do with its size and more to do with the degree to which culture, people, zombie behaviors, energy, fear and trust are elevated to business-worthy discussion topics. If your company isn’t talking about those things, only about yardsticks and milestones and who’s in or out of favor this week, then you’ve got zombies in your midst.
Years after playing Capture the Flag in the mud at midnight, I worked in companies that avoided the zombie plague to a striking degree. We did it by keeping human considerations on the top of the agenda no matter what issue we were discussing.
When a leader cares about the mission, s/he wants to share that excitement with everyone. Human Workplace leaders don’t keep good news to themselves or throw bad news on their subordinates’ shoulders. They say, “Okay, how are we going to work around this?” They’re grateful for the extra effort they get from their team members, because they know that whatever the paycheck, the money is not enough to get people excited. They have to have a personal stake in the win.
If you’re a manager in your company, an HR person or the CEO, you can toss out half of your policies in 2014. That’s a good starting point as you move up the Human Workplace curve. You can jettison the oldest, silliest and crustiest policies first, perhaps through a poll that asks your employees to vote for their favorite policies-to-nuke.
If you’re a human working in any function at any level, you can start conversations that need to happen when the energy is bad at work or when important topics aren’t getting airtime. It only takes opening your mouth and saying “I was wondering…should we talk about the frustration over the [sales comp plan, dress code policy, etc.]?”
Do it! You’ll reclaim your humanity and maybe help a more zombified person regain some of his or hers.