What’s the opposite of a zombie?

I still remember where I was when he used the word to describe many of our colleagues. We were leaving the office after a meeting, and the regional head of our division was talking about what he saw in the lobby at work each day.

“You look around,” he said, “and there’s no spark. They’re like zombies.” 

He wasn’t saying they were untalented or weren’t good people. Just that he noticed a palpable lack of energy. They were going through the motions of work but exhibited a kind of lifelessness.

What would the opposite of that be, and how might you help more people feel like that instead?

In Alive at Work, Professor or Organizational Behavior Dan Cable described his research on the topic, including an experiment involving the on-boarding of new employees at a Wipro call center in India. (The experiment was also popularized in The Culture Code by Dan Coyle, and replicated in other environments.)

New hires were randomly assigned to one of three groups. The first group went through the traditional Wipro orientation, which focused on skills training. The second went through an orientation in which a senior leader talked about the company, asked newcomers to reflect on why they might be proud to work at Wipro, and gave them a Wipro-branded sweatshirt. In the third condition, the new employees were asked about “times they used their best characteristics” and then ask to share their personal stories with other new employees in the group. At the end of the session, they were given a sweatshirt with their name on it. 

Six months later, the researchers found that the employees in the third condition had significantly higher customer satisfaction ratings, and employee retention in the group was better by 32%.

Dan Cable calls the approach and the feelings it engenders “activating your best self.” The founder of positive psychology, Martin Seligman, calls the feeling “zest, a positive trait reflecting a person’s approach to life with anticipation, energy, and excitement.” In Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity, David Whyte describes it as a feeling of vitality.

Companies need the contributing vitality of all the individuals who work for them in order to stay alive in the sea of changeability in which they find themselves. They must find a real way of asking people to bring these hidden heartfelt qualities to the workplace. A way that doesn’t make them feel manipulated or the subject of some 5 year plan. 

What the on-boarding research shows is that even small efforts which individuate employees and humanize a company can lead to measurable business benefits.  (“But in all my years of working with companies,” Dan Cable writes, “I have not seen a company use this approach.”)

One of my goals in spreading Working Out Loud is to show we don’t need to be limited to research experiments or to a few techniques in the first days at a company. We can help employees activate their best selves on their own, throughout their career, so instead of zombies at work we have more people feeling fully alive.

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A better way to welcome people to your organization

Imagine for a moment what it’s like to join a new organization, particularly a large one spread across locations. Don’t worry if it’s been a while since you started a new job. Things haven’t changed that much.

You go through an orientation process, largely about rules, tools, and values. You get access and accounts, a desk. You meet the people on your team and a few others sitting around you. 

Then, over a period of many years, you slowly build your network and learn how to navigate the organization. The more connected you become, the easier it is to find who and what you need to get things done. The richer your network, the more valuable you are to the organization. 

Here’s a way to significantly speed up this process.

Day 1

As part of the orientation process, you form people into Working Out Loud Circles, peer support groups of 4-5 people. They can be in different locations or different divisions, depending on your process and on the kind of connectivity you’d like to develop.

Normally, in your very first meeting, you start by picking a goal and listing people related to that goal. These Circles for new joiners will be even simpler, since each person already has a goal of getting to know people in their new organization. To make it easy for them, you provide a curated list of relationships that would be helpful for them given their particular job. This list will include relevant groups and influencers, as well as management.

Over the coming 12 weeks, each Circle will follow simple steps in the Circle Guides customized to include your organization’s examples and technology. So the exercises each week will refer to specific people and specific channels, making it straightforward to start building meaningful relationships at work.

Day 10

By the second meeting, the Circle members have already bonded as a group. They’re all going through the same process together, helping each other, and they feel it’s safe and confidential. It’s rare that anyone at work has a trusted mentor, so being part of a trusted group of peers can be quite powerful.

Together, they're already making small contributions to people in their relationship lists. It might be as simple as offering recognition by pressing a Follow button on the intranet. Or they might offer appreciation with a comment thanking someone for work they’ve done or a resource they’ve shared. They’re using a range of tools, not for the sake of digital transformation but to build relationships that matter.

After the second meeting, their network is already bigger than it would have been using a traditional on-boarding process. 

Day 100

Week after week, following the steps the Circle process, the group continues to do a wider range of things in the service of building relationships. They’re joining communities, asking questions, helping other new joiners, finding and sharing useful resources. 

While they further expand their network and deepen relationships with the people in it, they are developing a new mindset and new set of habits: working in an open, collaborative way. 

By their last meeting, they're able to Work Out Loud towards any goal. That’s a capability recently described as “perhaps the most fundamental digital workplace skill.” For their next project or problem, whatever it is, they’ll be able to find people that can help them and build relationships so they’re more likely to collaborate.

The results

When you welcome employees this way, you increase engagement and connectivity, and you reduce the time it takes to be productive. Instead of learning from binders in classrooms, new joiners learn by doing and collaborating in peer support groups.

Now imagine if all your new joiners, in their first few months, developed the habit of working in a more agile, visible, networked way. Imagine the positive change in your culture, the improved effectiveness of your people, and the greater return on your technology investments.

When you change how you welcome people to your organization, you have the chance to create sustainable change that feels good. But only if you imagine a better way, and take a step.