Liberating the Walking Dead at Work

05/28/2015 04:07 am ET | Updated May 27, 2016

If going to work feels like arriving on the set of "The Walking Dead," leadership might be the cause of your office's zombie apocalypse. Emphasizing the tasks you need employees to complete -- instead of the end goals -- can produce that effect.

A focus on tasks causes employees to feel expendable and not respected for their contributions. It zaps employee morale and kills your business by creating drone employees who do just what's asked, who don't innovate or show up with passion. Employees react by checking their brain at the door, waiting for orders, and doing the bare minimum.

This micromanaging approach only devalues your employees and positions you as a helicopter manager. The trick to humanizing your workforce is to start treating employees like responsible adults and instilling meaning into the goals you set.

Here are four ways to escape that post-apocalyptic feel and breathe some life into your workforce.

1. Provide context

Finding meaning at work starts with really understanding how each employee's contribution is helpful.

Provide context to the job each employee is doing by showing them why it's important. Tell them - or better yet show them - where it fits in the overall process, the team, the department and how this contributes to the organization's bottom line. When team members understand the whole process, R&D through shipping, they know what value they bring.

When describing the ideal manager, Peter Drucker famously used the parable of the three stonecutters. When asked what they were doing, the first one replied, "I am making a living." The second continued to hammer while saying, "I am doing the best job of stonecutting in the entire country." With an inspired spark in his eyes, the third one said, "I am building a cathedral."

The third worker can see the broader picture. He understands that he has a role in something bigger than himself. High-performing leaders ensure that all team members know how their work contributes to overall company objectives. Acknowledging that context gives jobs meaning.

2. Focus on responsibilities

When leaders only focus on tasks and assign tasks to employees they create an atmosphere of drudgery, boredom and sameness. The problem is, focusing on tasks limits people, it limits their creativity, their spirit, and ultimately, it limits the outcome.

Don't frame jobs in terms of tasks, instead frame them as outcomes. When team members are responsible for outcomes, they can figure out the necessary steps. Don't micromanage them by focusing on tasks.

While many activities do produce some benefit, they don't necessarily make a tangible difference for the organization. If you want specific, measurable outcomes that benefit the company, communicate the end results you want employees to accomplish, not the steps for getting there.

3. Broaden the Scope

Broadening the scope of jobs promotes variety and keeps people on their toes as they continuously learn and master new skills. It also creates more opportunities for employees to contribute their skill sets, which increases engagement as they find new ways to invest in the job.

By broadening your job descriptions from day one, you set clear expectations for high performance and a stimulating atmosphere.

Along with instilling meaning and promoting more productive and engaged employees, multi-functional jobs also:

  • Ease the hiring process because people are more attracted to broader jobs.
  • Allow you to do more with fewer employees because they have more robust skill sets.
  • Reduce scheduling issues because more employees can cover more roles.
  • Ensure training is ongoing and create a culture where continual improvement is expected behavior.

4. Say thank you

A recent study by Forbes found that organizations that regularly thanked their employees outperformed those that didn't. And according to a landmark Gallup poll, the No. 1 reason most Americans leave their jobs is because they don't feel appreciated. In fact, 65 percent of people surveyed said they got zero recognition for good work last year.

Showing gratitude is a vital performance skill that very few leaders exercise effectively. They often feel they're too busy to give positive feedback, they shouldn't have to thank people for doing their job, or they should wait until a job is done perfectly before expressing gratitude.

To truly make people feel appreciated, be specific. Describe the action or behavior you want to reinforce, the impact of that behavior, and how it reflects the person's character. Then say thank you. This can make a profound impact on people's lives.

As a leader, you can ignite a culture of gratitude that pays dividends by modeling this behavior. You don't need to invest in fancy "recognition programs" -- you can simply start showing gratitude today.

Your employees are still human underneath the vacant stares, so start treating them like it. Liberate them from the bonds of task-orientation so they can use their creativity and become passionate about their role in the company's success. Mix in some tangible appreciation, and you'll see improvements every way you measure success.

Sue Bingham is the founder and principal of HPWP Consulting. She has been on the forefront of the positive business movement for 30 years. She is driven to create high performance workplaces by partnering with courageous leaders who value the contributions of team members. Connect with Sue on Twitter at @suehpwp.