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Stuck in a Zombie Paradigm

I’m in the passenger seat. My wife is driving. We’re on our way to second Christmas with her brother’s family. This has been the pattern for around twenty years.

Yesterday I stepped into the kitchen to see if any help was needed. My mother-in-law, whom I love dearly, is 86 years old and beginning to have a bit of difficulty handling more than a few things at a time. The food prep was not quite in sync and we needed to keep the broccoli warm while other food prep finished.  She was stuck on the “don’t use the serving bowls in the oven” paradigm. And, yes you can’t use them for baking, but the warming oven is at 120 degrees and the food is near 200. Not baking, just warming. She was stuck in that paradigm.

A few weeks ago I did laundry. I didn’t have time to fold so I just put the underwear in the drawer. That was the first time I’d tried that approach. It didn’t work out well for my mental state.  I was able to use them up without taking them out and folding them but I felt weird the entire time.  I am stuck in my fold the underwear paradigm. It’s worse because I have a specific way to fold them. I could feel the stickiness of adherence to pattern.

We are all stuck in various paradigms of thought and behavior.  The patterns we adopt are comforting to us for a couple of reasons. One, once a pattern or paradigm is adopted we don’t have to think of it any longer, we just do the thing or think that way. It frees up the mind and creates a sense of familiarity. Whether right or wrong it feels familiar.  And, second, because the thing is known and we know what to expect we have a sense of safety. Change and ambiquity require us to develop new pathways mentally and behaviorally. For most of us this makes us feel uncomfortable, unsafe.

The same is true organizationally. This phenomenon is especially apparent when the organization suffers from too much dysfunction. By default, organizational behavior is a direct result of the people in it.  And is greatly influence by the people leading.  It follows then, when there is a culture of mis-trust and fear that those in the culture must seek ways to feel safe and seek out less ambiguous situations.  This leads to a reluctance to share bad news, increased attempts to fix things before anyone notices, too few “experts” to whom everyone else has to get direction, micromanagment at all levels, an inability to make decisions, slow decision making, and a host of other dysfunctional behaviors.  These are the very dysfunctions for which a transformation is undertaken.

After working at a transformation for many months and not seeing the expected changes occurring a step back is needed to figure our why.  Work with those in charge helped them see the light, opening up the space for their people to fly, step out of the way, and learn to let go, a little.  Then the zombies come out.  You know the zombies, something like with ones in “World War Z”, that shuffle around until they get stimulated by a sound or smell a healthy fresh human.  Then they go into a mad dash frenzy. Though the frenzy isn’t good for the healthy humans, the zombies are getting what they need.

It turns out that “retrained” management is not enough to overcome fear and distrust.The organization created by the long standing pattern of dysfunction builds a culture that reminds one of the dormant zombies in WWZ.  The very people that would benefit the most from the transformation, those who would decrease the dysfunction, are the ones who are trained to distrust, had the bar lowered; who have not had the space to take ownership, to be empowered, or to engage. These are they who can’t step into the action because they don’t know how and no longer have the stimulus (direct orders, expectations, decisions).

In the end a transformation must not only be pursued at every level of the organization but an appreciation of the maturity, skill and professional capability of everyone involved must be addressed.  One of the ways to detect this potential situation can be had in the response to creating a group to address some aspect of the transformation.  After some guidance, and assistance, one would typically expect the group to organize themselves, find a leader, and assist in moving the work forward. When this doesn’t happen, assuming that management is not the impediment, look for zombies.  If you find them a decision needs to be made relative to de-zombification.  In the movie “Warm Bodies” the male protagonist zombie found himself romantically, if not impossibly, attracted to a warm bodied girl which triggered a cure of his zombie-ism.  Turned out love, as it often is, was the cure.

Assuming one wants to cure the zombies, love takes the form of training, learning, coaching, encouraging, and sometimes replacing, those who are too set in their zombie ways.  Only when enough “Warm Bodies” are created from the transformation of the zombies will a lasting cultural transformation take place.