Warning: this contains spoilers.
Do your employees resemble hordes of undead corpses mindlessly stumbling around the office with no sign of life or vigor in their eyes? If so, that says a lot more about you and your leadership style as opposed to them.
AMC's fictional TV show The Walking Dead is a smash hit. Set in post-apocalyptic Georgia, it centers around a small army of human survivors battling flesh-eating zombies and trying to make a life for themselves in a world gone to hell. So what does that have to do with office life? It turns out there’s a lot the average person can learn by watching Rick Grimes and his determined band of misfits survive and adapt in unprecedented and dangerous environments. More specifically, a close examination of the show provides some pretty great (and not-so-great) examples of how to lead people through tumultuous times and considerable upheaval.
So how does battling zombies and leading your employees on a daily basis mix? Check out these eight examples.
The bottom line -- whether you're in the zombie apocalypse or overseeing workers in cubicles -- is things work better when everyone knows his responsibilities up front and does the job he was assigned.
In The Walking Dead, Rick leads. Period. End of story. Darryl tracks and hunts, Dale was the mechanic, Glenn handles security, Hershel is a senior adviser, Beth babysits, and so on. When each member of Rick's gang is locked in and doing his/her part, they run a pretty smooth operation. Trouble always seems to arise when a new member is introduced into the group and job responsibilities get too nebulous, or someone goes outside the chain of command and acts on his own. That's usually when people die or risk being eaten alive.
Employees need the same kind of structure and a clearly defined set of expectations. Did you hire someone for a certain role, only now that person's job responsibilities have shifted so much their original job description is barely recognizable? If so, that employee could become a problem down the road because you didn't clearly define his/her role as it evolved.
Try to keep everyone on the same page and you'll have an easier time managing the team as a whole.
Carol on The Walking Dead is a nice lady and a hard worker. She can cook, clean, and even shoot a gun if necessary. But at the end of the day, she is unskilled labor. And while every group needs worker bees, Rick and company probably wouldn't be alive with an army of Carols.
Every group needs top-performers who are highly trained to get by. Rick is a sheriff with extensive law enforcement training. Darryl possess the specialized skills of hunting and tracking. Hershel has medical training and uses his knowledge to save lives and heal the sick. All the unskilled labor in the world won't make up for the level of training and education these three have in their respective areas of expertise. So when you're looking to fill open positions, keep in mind that an employee base with a diverse set of training and skills is of the utmost importance.
Shane was Rick's best friend on the show, and by all measures he was a top performer. He led the group before Rick joined them, gave everyone job descriptions, set up a perimeter to defend against walkers (the name they give to the zombies), and kept everyone safe. Even after Rick joined the group and took over as the top dog, Shane's police training made him an important and esteemed member of the group and his actions in different situations saved the lives of multiple people.
But eventually Shane became jealous of Rick. He disengaged from the group dynamic and became a rebel and an outcast. Before too long his negative influence on the group began to outweigh his usefulness, and he tried to kill Rick in attempt to wrest back control and his leadership status. Rick didn't want to kill Shane and he gave him several chances to turn things around, but in the end he had to put Shane down permanently.
Obviously we're not advocating violence of any kind toward your employees. But when you have someone bringing everyone else in the office down -- a person who refuses help even after you've offered it repeatedly -- it's time to cut ties and fire him/her. Just like the Walking Dead survivors eventually understood Rick's decision, so too will your remaining workers. From there you can start fresh and build in a more positive, constructive manner utilizing addition by subtraction.
Good communication keeps everyone on the same page and cuts down on mistakes and mishaps. But lack of proper communication can spell disaster.
In Season 2 when Rick was trying to convince Hershel to let them stay at the farm, he was successful because he talked everything out with Hershel every step of the way. Hershel was hesitant at first, but in the end he appreciated the honesty and Rick's forthright nature, and the two clans joined together. And whenever Rick and company go into a fight or clear the prison of zombies, they are communicating every step of the way so everyone knows where the other stands. That's in direct contrast to Carl, who constantly disobeyed his parents and has now turned into a hardened killer who makes a point to stray from protocol and make decisions above his pay grade.
Your employees can't (and shouldn't) be privy to everything that's going on behind the scenes, but they should know enough to feel included in the process. You won't always be able to deliver good news, but you can mitigate the bad news by keeping them in the loop as much as possible so they're not completely blindsided when the stuff hits the fan.
Whenever Rick has to leave the prison or put his own life in danger, he leaves someone in charge and a plan in place. He knows he might not come back, so he does his utmost to ensure the safety of the remaining group members is a top priority.
Likewise, if you're going to be out of the office for an extended amount of time or working on another project above and beyond your normal usual focus, you need to have a plan in place so business carries on uninterrupted. Leave someone competent in your stead who can carry out your duties well enough to succeed. And make sure before you leave you prepare him/her for the task well before your departure, so it's not a shock to the system when it does happen.
Rick always has a plan. Always.
He's facing zombies but has no idea how many. He doesn't have a home. Food is scarce. He has no idea how many others have survived or whether help is ever going to be on the way. He lives every day in a world full of unknowns, so he quickly realized the best way to combat that is to have a solid plan and stick to it. It allows him (and the rest of the group) some modicum of control over their lives, which is important even if it is a false sense of security in some instances. But Rick and his crew never would've been able to clear the prison of walkers or fight off The Governor without creating and implementing a clear, concise plan and sticking to it.
Likewise in business, you need to know where you're headed before you start the journey. Do your research, come up with goals, and map out your path to success. Sometimes the battle is won before the fighting even begins.
There's no way around it --if you want to lead, you'll have to make tough, gut-wrenching decisions.
Rick had to kill his best friend Shane because he realized that Shane's leadership would ultimately lead to the group's demise. Carl had to shoot his own mother after she died while giving birth so that she wouldn't turn into a zombie. And when Hershel was bitten on the leg by a zombie in the prison, Rick made the split-second decision to cut his leg off in the hopes of stopping the infection and Hershel turning into a zombie. Rick wasn't sure if it would work, but he trusted his gut and took a big chance. In the end it saved Hershel's life.
When you're in charge of other people at work you'll inevitably face difficult decisions. Do as much research as you can, look at the problem from all angles, trust you gut, and make the best decision possible. It won't always be easy and sometimes it'll be downright painful, but putting it off out of fear is almost always going to make it worse.
Life is fluid and circumstances change by the day -- sometimes by the hour. What worked yesterday may not work today, and tomorrow will almost certainly bring fresh challenges.
No one knows this better than Rick, who has constantly struggled with his own leadership style on The Walking Dead. He started out as a voice of reason and a proponent of democracy, always bringing the group in for meetings, allowing votes, and holding open discussions before any big decision was made. His status as the leader was never in doubt, but he had a knack for making everyone feel important. But when things went haywire and they ran out of wiggle room, Rick saw it and took action immediately. He grabbed the reins with an iron fist and took a "my way or the highway" approach to decisions, because things were desperate and he felt he needed to act unilaterally to keep everyone safe. Then, at the end of Season 3, he realized that was unsustainable and vowed to be more open in the future.
You shouldn't aim to be a dictator or a doormat, so find a happy medium and remember every situation is different. The best approach is to remain flexible to the needs of your employees, getting to know their strong suits and weak points. That way you know when to ride them if they're underperforming and when to let them work on their own to get the best results.
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