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Managing Project Zombies
By Francis Norman

OK, I’ll come clean right at the start, this article has nothing to do with the zombie’s depicted by popular fiction, I am not going to be discussing employees who have recently risen from the dead and who will wander the halls of your project leaving a trail of body parts and dead colleagues…

The project zombies I am discussing arrive at work just like all of the other employees, they look like project staff, talk more or less like project staff and in most ways behave like project staff, however, they differ from the rest of the project workforce in that they are essentially going through the motions of their job, they lack the life-force that drives the most productive staff and if left unmanaged will in many ways eat the brains of their colleagues.

What is a project zombie?

Despite the general popular fiction image that zombies are created through the reanimation of those already dead, I suggest that there are, in fact, metaphoric zombies walking amongst us in many of our projects. These project zombies typically join the workforce as keen, enthusiastic individuals looking to learn and contribute to the best of their ability to the successful outcomes of the projects they are part of, along the way, however, something inside of them dies and they lose their enthusiasm and passion for their jobs, decaying into zombies, personnel who turn up, do the essential parts of their jobs, collect a paycheck and check out.

Where do project zombies come from?

I believe these project zombies lose their passion through being under challenged, unappreciated or given tasks which quite simply destroy their will to live a more fulfilling work experience. This can happen in many ways, they could have been overlooked for a highly desired more challenging role, they could be seen as being so good at something the project organization refuses to release them to do other things, they could be working in a very repetitive role with no new mental challenges to keep them engaged, or they may have issues outside of work that make it very hard to concentrate on their day job, issues such as family sickness, problems with debts or similar.

Wherever they come from though, these project zombies are there, ready almost to eat the brains of their previously fully animated colleagues, or at the very least, to sap their enthusiasm if left unmanaged.

What damage can they do if not managed?

Left to their own devices, project zombies can have a very negative effect on their colleagues and the overall culture of a project. Their colleagues will see that they are not fully engaged in their work but are left unmanaged and unsupported, this could lead to the colleagues either feeling that the project does not really appreciate its employees or will happily accept their zombie like approach to work. The former can lead to additional personnel becoming unengaged if they think they too may not be appreciated or offered that next challenging role they seek while the latter could see colleagues mimicking the behavior if they think they can get away with it unchecked.

How can you manage project zombies?

Managing project zombies takes one of two forms, either bring them back to life or remove them from the project environment before they have the opportunity to do too much damage. I will advocate principally for the reanimation route as the great majority of the project zombies have a desire to be fully animated, fully committed project members in their hearts, but on occasion some will simply not be savable and it can be best to remove them from the project environment.

Reanimation

Reanimating, or re-engaging project zombies entails finding a way for them to recover their passion for their work, to find an opportunity to contribute and recapture the enthusiasm they had when they joined the job or joined the workforce, to return to the things that motivated them in the beginning. It can be as simple as reviewing their role and changing a few things, either adding in tasks and responsibilities or removing some of the more routine things they are required to perform and allocating them to someone for whom they are still novel and challenging tasks.

It could also be a case of moving them to a different part of the project team, where they have new challenges, new colleagues and hopefully a new view on things. If the issue is financial the problem may be more complex, as most projects and organizations have fairly strict processes and procedures for salary review, but there may be some latitude if the problem is fully explored.

If the issues causing the loss of passion are external to the project and the business, such as family illness, providing some discretionary support, counseling or additional leave, or restructuring their workload to take some of the pressure off while at work may provide enough help to allow them to resolve matters. Even a small amount of relief from day to day concerns, allowing time and space for problems to be worked through, could help the individual and at the same time demonstrate to the rest of the workforce that the project cares and is prepared to help those with problems.

Removal

If all else fails though, the best things for the project and, potentially for the individual, can be to remove them from the project environment. Hopefully you will be able to move people into other roles in the business where they can get the opportunities they need to recapture their enthusiasm, failing which, it may be necessary to remove them from your organization completely. Even here though there are ways that can help both the individual and the project, offer them counseling to help them find a new opportunity that will give them the challenges they need and at the same time, demonstrate to the rest of the project team that the project cares for its people beyond the time they work for it.

Francis Norman is the owner and founder of Ulfire, a management consultancy specialising in virtual teams. He has a background in major industrial projects and is pursuing a PhD in management. Ulfire can be found at http://www.ulfire.com.au

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