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Peace, Pay and the Walking Dead

Peace, Pay and the Walking Dead

One of the most famous cult films of all time was the 1968 film directed by George R. Romero, entitled Night of the Living Dead. In this movie a group of surviving townspeople fight off constant attacks by hordes of bloodthirsty zombies. Anyone on the leading edge of organizational change trying to overcome the status quo feels a little like those poor souls in that farmhouse! While we may not face bloodthirsty zombies, we may have to deal with zombies of another sort within our organizations.

Dr. Robert E. Quinn, of the University of Michigan is the author of the book Deep Change: Discovering the Leader Within. One of the most profound organizational behavior concepts Quinn presents was that of the walking dead and peace and pay.  I shared both concepts at strategic planning retreat for our Organizational Development team for an organization I had worked for. There was a lot of head nodding and murmuring of agreement as we talked about the climate and culture of our organization, the state of our senior and mid-level leadership and the overall performance of our organization.

What did Quinn mean by the” walking dead”. This referred to the people who have given up. Their work lives having no meaning, hope or future. As he has stated it is a mental illness where people “live lives of quiet desperation” (p. 21). These employees engage in continual demonstrations of collective victimhood; pathetic Eeyores who blame everyone and everything for their plight, except themselves and are unwilling to take responsibility for taking the necessary steps to make the deep personal psychological change required for rescuing them from the “slow death”

Quinn argues that the problem in this attitude of “slow death: is that is it pervasive. This is especially true in organizations where there is a conservative, formal culture and framed by a “don’t rock the boat “mentality. This attitude leads to a violation of trust, where the senior leaders may recognize the need for change, but  only give  lip service to substantive changes in behavior based programs and activities designed to ignite deep organizational change in empowering and motivating employees. In my previous organization the efforts to escape the slow death had taken hold in a few organizational outposts, but the other leaders have chosen to remain safe in the slowly heated water like the doomed frog.

Many mid-level leaders had opted for the peace and pay-maintain the status quo don’t rock the boat attitudes, thus continuing to perpetuate the attitude of slow death. These leaders blamed budget cuts, hiring freezes, lack of personnel, increased workloads, complaining of the burnout that Quinn describes. They look forward to the promise of early retirement packages that may come, but more than likely will face a hostile takeover leading to slash and burn separations before they can retire in two or three years and head for the golf course or the beach, leaving the mess for others to clean up and blissfully unaware of the storms heading their way.

Younger workers eager to make changes are tired of the malaise and refuse to succumb to the slow death. They vote with their feet and go to where they feel they are appreciated. If they remain in the organization, they soon discover that the same attitudes and sense of victimhood are there and then plan their escape to other organizations that will appreciate their contributions and talents creating a drain of talent that is hard to replace in a dog eat dog world  of stealing the best and the brightest. In organizations unprepared for the shock wave changes in the marketplace, they find they have no viable succession plans aligned with a strategic human resources plan and  soon find themselves in a crisis stage, fighting for survival,  unable to compete and doomed to be relegated to the scrapheap of failed enterprises; as their ship slips beneath the waves.

I am a change agent and admittedly it is not easy! It would so easy to be lulled to sleep by the siren song of, “C’mon Fobbs, stop creating a fuss. Some of these people don’t care. They just want their next bonus! They won’t change. Can’t you just get along and get with the program? Stop rocking the boat man!” I am neither lazy nor lack moral courage which is sometimes harder than facing the physical dangers of the battlefield. I admit, at times I had been the lone voice crying in the wilderness, and some of the team who were with me, had become causalities of the slow death. I have opted for the deep change both organizationally and personally. I have recognized those tendencies to just to give in, but I have refused. If I couldn’t take the battle publicly, I have waged an underground campaign to change, converting one slow death victim after another until I managed to get other senior leaders on my side.

Politically, this had been risky, but it bore fruit. Yes, I had some enemies. Defenders of the status quo, those who would love to see me run out of town on a rail, but my assertions had proven to be right and before I left, I had the support of the CEO, who supported programs to change the climate and culture of the organization to mitigate the effects of slow death, enhance innovation and make the organization more competitive. So there was some success.  I am not so naïve as to think that everyone can be saved from this slow death, but if the organization can make forward movement towards deep change, then the efforts were not in vain.

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Colonel (Ret) Terry Fobbs, PhD, Consultant and Facilitator for Gailforce Resources, is an accomplished public speaker, facilitator and media commentator on human resources, leadership, motivational, national security and community issues. With a BS-Zoology, MBA, Masters in-Strategic Studies, PhD- in Organization & Management specializing in Leadership, Terry has earned the respect of his peers, employer and Gailforce clientele. Terry is an ISO 9000 Certified Lead Assessor, a Baldrige Quality Examiner with the Center for Excellence in Education and the Michigan Quality Council and a recipient of the Michigan Quality Council Quality Hero Award. Terry has served as an adjunct instructor in Business Management for the University of Maryland. He is a member of the Academy of Management and serves as a member of the Academy’s Organizational Development and Entrepreneurship committees. Terry plays active consulting and facilitating roles for Gailforce Resources, working with CEO’s, Boards of Directors, Business Owners, Municipalities and Sector Groups to turn their business strategy into execution and their people into valuable business assets.

One Comment


  1. Persistence is definitely an agent of change. I am very interested in the “walking dead” theory, not the tv series. How do you extinguish the dissonance between the “old” and “new” in a conservative organization?

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