A lot has been written about the recent surge in popularity of the zombie genre. Since around 2000 there has been an explosion of zombies in video games, movies, books and TV shows. Mostly this resurgence in the genre has been linked to the rising fear of complete societal breakdown – zombies are a great metaphor for an unstoppable plague destroying our way of life. And yet the modern zombie genre goes far beyond that in that they are also a great metaphor for mindless consumerism – zombies have no purpose other than to turn humans into yet more zombies. So they reflect something most people today can relate to – the contradiction of feeling compelled to consume and they vague understanding of how dismal such an existence really is. Especially if you have to work long hours in a job you don’t necessary enjoy to earn the money to consume.
We can relate to their mindless plight and to the fears that zombies conjure up – we see evidence of mindless consumption and potential societal collapse around us every day now. Political dysfunction, growing inequality, terror threats, Ebola, climate change, financial crises – the news is full of real-world threats and completely lacks evidence of a considered, comprehensive response. Individual self-interest, increased consumption and protecting accumulated gains and power has replaced the desire to look for effective ways to look after each other and neutralise current and future threats.
From our observations there is an additional factor that makes us so receptive for the zombie narrative. In the last 5-6 years we have seen what can only be described as the zombification of the corporate workplace. Despite relentless talk about the need to innovate, adapt and to increase productivity and leadership, in actual fact the opposite is happening in most large organisations. There are ever more rules, more compliance, more risk avoidance, more noise and more meetings to go to, making the idea of creative expression at work a laughable proposition for most.
In 2002 Richard Florida gave us the idea that we were witnessing the rise of the ‘creative class’, arguing that we would see a shift to ‘innovators’, to people getting paid for their ability to come up with original ideas. You may have noticed nobody talks about his, then quite popular, hypothesis anymore. At the same time we continue to press the case for better education, for attending university, for doing double degrees, masters and MBAs. But the question is, who actually gets the chance to use such knowledge and problem solving ability to full effect in the corporate world? Where is the evidence that with an ever-increasing number of university educated employees the risk-taking behaviour of corporations has changed and their innovative capacity is blooming? Yes, there is a vibrant start-up scene in some sectors, but the overall level of productivity gains and innovation has been going backwards for nearly two decades now.
The reality is that most highly-educated people’s abilities are underutilised at work. Instead, they are kept busy, something that has been perfected in recent years. There is not a single decision that couldn’t be improved by calling yet another meeting or stakeholder consultation. The simplest procurement decisions can be turned into a nightmare with the help of procurement systems that helpfully ‘automate’ procurement processes. Worthwhile projects can be delayed or inflated through an all-encompassing enterprise project management system. At the extreme end, we have seen executive teams prepare 100-page ‘board packs’ for every monthly board meeting. These are just a couple of recent examples of a never-ending stream of compliance activities. Overall, in Australia, 16% of all corporate resources are allocated to compliance according to recent research. What percentage is allocated to innovation, to risky projects or to R&D?
If this sounds familiar you should stop and step back for a minute and ask yourself– what are you REALLY working on? What is the value of what you do? Which of your skills are being utilised? Your ability to solve complex problems or your ability to comply with a set of processes? Your ability to find a response to changing customer needs or your ability to defend existing products or services from the position of rigid internal processes? This reflection may be painful, but we often don’t make a conscious choice about staying in a job or organisation we no longer like or enjoy. Mainly, we sort of slide into these situations as a result of decisions or lack of decisions that compound over time. Which means the process of turning into a corporate zombie is often quite slow and may take years.
If you feel that you are turning into a zombie at work, you are not on your own. We are seeing more and more managers and technical professionals who look disillusioned, defeated and disassociated from work. Employee engagement in Australia averages 34%, even among the highest performing group the engagement level is only 58%. The top five reasons cited are indicators of diverging objectives between employees and corporations – misalignment between individual and corporate values, inability to pursue career objectives, lack of belief in company’s products or services, lack of ownership of work and being in jobs that don’t utilise individual strengths. No wonder that significant numbers of people start to tune out and turn into corporate zombies.