“Stuff Zombies Hate” by Greg Stones
Used by Permission

As much as I might like to believe otherwise, I have always carried my heart and soul to the office with me. I have lugged along my flawed belief systems, my need for recognition, and my subconscious, hair-trigger emotional responses. No matter how lofty my title, I remained imperfect and human, vulnerable, and susceptible to shame, defensiveness, and reactivity.

I just did a better job of covering it up at work.

My intention was to serve my ideals of professional behavior, even if I wasn’t completely authentic. It was automatic; I behaved like a zombie on its mindless quest for human brains to consume: no thoughtful approach, no curiosity, and no awareness of other options.

Most of the managers I worked for were on their own professional journeys, and ranged from helpful to harmless. Late in my corporate career, however, I had two bosses who were abusive, emotionally unstable bullies, who used shame and fear as their go-to management tools. My days were horrific stomach-clenching nightmares that began with NPR’s upbeat “Morning Edition” theme (which to this day can bring the trauma rushing back to me) and ended with a glass of wine or tearful outburst, or both.

My confidence was ruined, my heart bruised, and my soul crushed. And executive management didn’t seem to have a problem with that.

One executive actually explained that he planned to exploit our belief that we would never be good enough, so we’d overcompensate with long hours and competitive behavior, driving sales to new heights.

The outcome of shame management is not improved performance, but disengagement. In my own experience, the futility of trying to please managers who employed shame and fear led me to shut down my creativity, stifle the expression of my strengths, and ultimately quit my job.

Unfortunately, it’s accepted, if not condoned, in schools and companies whose lofty mission statements might lead you to believe they had evolved beyond this management method.

Several years have passed since my corporate days, and I find myself on a mission to restore the human qualities of authenticity, healthy boundaries, and resilience to the workplace. We have to foster honest conversations about the things that stand in the way of creativity and productivity, and bring a personal, mindful approach to engaging and connecting at work.

Re-humanizing the workplace requires a framework that provides support when people feel unsteady.

In Chapter 6 of Daring Greatly, Brené Brown offers that framework. “Disruptive Engagement” occurs when candid conversations are encouraged, putting shame and vulnerability on the table in a constructive way, making people more likely to stay engaged in their work and succeed with their cooperative efforts. Re-humanizing work is disruptive, and disruptive ideas revolutionize the way we think and behave, shifting paradigms and evolving the culture.

Management practices that suppress creative ideas and use shame or fear to control behavior have to be recognized, and stopped, and replaced with methods of providing feedback that go beyond simplistic “positive-negative-positive” formulas. You know exactly what I mean: contrived efforts to say something nice on either side of a critical comment have less to do with your growth than with satisfying a managerial requirement that reviews must highlight “growth opportunities.”

If the goal is to get the employee re-engaged, it’s an epic failure.

Constructive feedback is an art that most managers execute more like Rambo than Rembrandt.

Effective and inspiring leadership comes from creating a safe space for vulnerability and growth, and from giving others room to perform. This often takes the leader out of his or her “comfort zone.” It takes courage and heart to enter that vulnerable and rewarding place.

The opening that leads to full engagement comes from leaders who:
• introduce a common language to discuss difficult issues,
• bring awareness to damaging patterns, and
• promote understanding of the human side of generating the new ideas and processes that sustain corporate endeavors.

The goal, says Brown, is not “‘getting comfortable with hard conversations,’ but normalizing discomfort.”

If leaders expect real learning, critical thinking, and change, then discomfort should be normalized: “We believe growth and learning are uncomfortable, so it’s going to happen here—you’re going to feel that way. We want you to know that it’s normal and it’s an expectation here. You’re not alone and we ask that you stay open and lean into it.”

Normalizing discomfort? Dude. That’s profound.

What if we could go to work and know that we’re going to flail a bit, and fail a bit, and that the flailing and the failing are not only acceptable, but also encouraged? How would our willingness to contribute ideas, create new systems, or poke holes in existing ones, change? What could we accomplish if we no longer feared ridicule, judgment or smack-down?

What if being wrong was viewed as valuable learning rather than a failed outcome?

In corporate systems that crave certainty, how can we master the reality of uncertainty in a way that honors the needs of the corporation by honoring the strengths of the employees?

In what other situations, besides the workplace, might you “normalize discomfort,” and what do you stand to gain?

Ponder these questions using your own experience, and find like-minded co-workers to engage with you. You’ll be improving the quality of everyone’s contributions and helping your organization evolve.

And you’ll no longer have to worry that the zombie in your office is you.

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