"My God, my God," says my friend Kristin on the phone, whispering so as not to be overheard by her cubicle-mates. "I am surrounded by zombies." "I guess you can't give me an example, right now," I said. "Let me get out to my car and I will," said Kristin. On her way home from work, she told me this story.
"One of our new senior VPs had this insane idea to organize an all-company event around a minor product launch that no one cares about except him," she said. "He went into full delusion mode, and tried to rope me into his alternative universe. He wanted to do video and live webcasting to all of our regions, invite all our customers and the whole shebang. The poor guy can't see that no one cares about this launch, it has nothing to do with anything, and the whole deal is just the guy's monument to himself.
He's the kind of guy you'd meet and say 'I bet that guy is into building monuments to himself,' and it turns out to be true. Everyone tries to talk to him. I tried to tell him. His own administrative assistant tried to tell him."
"So far I'm getting more separated-from-reality-guy than zombie," I said. "Okay, let me get there," said Kristin. "So the senior VP is getting thwarted at every turn, but he's missing every signal that his stupid plan is going nowhere. He's talking about spending a million or two million dollars and stopping the whole company for a day and squandering whatever brownie points we have to get customers and vendors and employees to our events, all for the sake of padding his resume and giving him an opportunity to praise himself. It's oppressive, it's sucking all the air out of the room every time the guy is around, and it's lunacy."
"Okay, go on," I said.
"So the guy goes to our division president, and he says 'Everybody loves this idea. They want to do this event. I don't want to push this, because I don't want it to be about me as the champion for this product, but there's a lot of momentum and energy around this idea and we should really do it."
"Snake," I said. "Toad. Not to be picky with the phylla and the kingdoms and all that, but where does the zombie part come in?"
"So the delusional guy who's also a snake or toad tells the division president that the whole world is crazy for his idea, and he gives the division president a full proposal that he wrote himself, down to the vendor name and the prices for the tents on the lawn and the design for the logo on the giveaway T-shirts.
The division president shoots him down cold, and tells him it's a waste of money and a distraction and possibly the most bizarre proposal he's ever seen. So the delusional reptile guy says, "Wow, thank you. Thank you for your candor. I felt that way from the beginning, but the team, you know, my peers, they pushed the idea and I didn't want to shoot it down. I felt that I had to support them that way, and bring the idea to you, and I'm happy to take the bullet, for the team and all."
"CREEPY," I said. "This dude is dangerous."
"And here's the zombie part," Kristin went on. "Not one of my colleagues will set the record straight with the VP, nor will they tell Toad Man to his face that he used their names in vain, nor will they bring up the incident at a meeting. It's in the dustbin and the vault, and it's done, until the next time Mr. Crazy goes out of his mind, which should be about a week from now if not sooner. The guy is toxic and dangerous, he's lying to the top executives, he's throwing his co-workers under the bus, butter wouldn't melt in his mouth, and everyone's silent about it."
"Okay," I said. "Sorry I was impatient. I see the zombie part now."
"I'm talking about 15 or 18 different people who were slimed by this guy, and they know it. Any one of them has the opportunity to say to the division president or their own boss or the company CEO, "This guy is on his own planet, and doesn't stop at normal human barriers like What is True and Why Would I Stab That Guy in the Back? But they don't say 'boo.'"
"Now you know I'm going to ask ---", I said, and Kristin said "What about me? Of course. So that's the news. I walked into the CEO's office -- my boss's boss's boss -- this morning. I told him that we have a senior person who is acting erratically and terrifying people into silence, and he listened to me and didn't say anything, and then I came back to my desk."
"Mama," I said. "You've got ovaries of steel." "So I figure, at this point, I've rolled over on the guy for better or worse, why would I be quiet about it? I told three of my colleagues in the department that I spoke up, and they mumbled and went back to their desks."
"Disturbance in the Force!" I breathed. "And how," said Kristin. "So I've got a force field around me right now, about 18-inches deep. You should have heard the side conversations in our staff meeting. Everyone knows I dropped a dime on He Who Must Not Be Named, and it's like I've got ebola virus."
"This guy must have the dark mojo like no one's business," I said. "I never remember you complaining about zombie workmates. I mean, is this guy your colleagues' boss?"
"No, he's a toad in another group, he's been here nine months, he has virtually no juice at all and he's a stone loser, the kind of guy you see coming a mile away," she said.
"Liz, how weenified to you have to be to be afraid of a pathetic clown like that? He's 48 or 50 years-old, and he's a boy who never got picked for a team in gym class. He's a guy who never found his place, and he's a bully and a poseur and everything you'd expect, an empty suit with anger and control issues. This is the exact kind of guy that you hear was walked out the door on a Friday afternoon when the boss found out about some funny business, and you say 'I'm not surprised.' Nonetheless, he works here now, and people are walking on eggshells around him."
"What a lesson, though, in fear at work!" I said. "Geez Louise, sister, be in my movie instead of writing a PhD dissertation on it," she said. "Yes, of course, my darling," I said. "I am sympathetic as a mofo. What are you doing to stay in yourself, when you've got this force field around you and people are acting like you've got chicken pox?"
"I'm using this as reflective time," she said. "I'm doing stuff that requires me to sit and focus, following up on correspondence and organizing my office. I can do that for a few days without any trouble, to ground myself. Next week I have to jump back into full-contact mode, and by then I'll have my equilibrium back."
"What do you think your CEO will do?"
"Well," said Kristin, "it's never my first choice to put a person into the corner, but this is one of those things where no one says anything and then there's a crisis with an account or a vendor or a company credit card, or worse," she said. "I'm no psychologist, but this dude I'm talking about has sociopath written all over him. He puts words and full paragraphs into the mouths of people he's never met. He name-drops like no one you've ever met, organically, incessantly. There's something completely off and scary about him, and the zombies around me are acting like if we ignore the problem it'll just fade away."
"Who's his boss?" I wanted to know.
"Oh, his boss is a lovely, effervescent, charming woman who spends half her time here and half on the west coast," said Kristin. "She's cultivated the rose-colored glasses with this guy, and she's barreling toward a brick wall right now, because every time she comes to our facility he's spinning her a new fantasy about the great things he's going to do." "So what would happen, Kristin," I asked, "since this guy isn't at your staff meetings, if you introduced the topic of you and the aborted event and the force field at the next meeting? Just to name the albatross?"
"I figured I'd give each of my colleagues one more chance," she said. "There's a conspiracy of silence now, but it's not like the issue went away and the guy chilled and toned down his insanity. He gets worse and worse. Some of my zombie workmates are going to realize that the guy doesn't know friend from foe, there's no difference to him, that every person is only a tool or a liability to him at any given moment and that they're going to need an ally with, excuse me, balls before long. They're going to need moral support and truth-telling more than they need to kiss the toad-man's ass any more than they've done with their silence already."
"Girl!" I said. "You need a massage."
"I do," said Kristin, "but you know what? It feels good to grow my muscles. It's exercise. Not macho-good like look at me, I'm so badass, but pure, clean good, like I'm happy that I still remember what my grandfather taught me about telling the truth, back in Minnesota."
"Your grandpa was a farmer, right?" I asked her. "He was," she said, "Corn and peas and some livestock, and lots of horses, and I reckoned I'd be a farmer, too, which I guess I am, building software products, same thing, planting and sowing, right?"
"And watching the weather and tending the herd and staying in your body," I said, and Kristin said "Zombies can turn back into humans under certain circumstances, right?"
"My actual knowledge of zombie attributes is shockingly limited," I said, "and I apologize for that, because writing about zombies all the time you'd think I would know more than I do. I know that the idea of zombified humans that led to the first zombie movies, that idea came from Haiti, where people would drink some herbs in a tea or whatever and go into a trance." "This is exactly what's happening around me right now," said Kristin. "It's truly creepy."
"Hang in there," I said, "and don't accept any strange cups of tea."
"I know it's the right thing, what I did," she said.
"It is the right thing, and whatever happens from here on, that is the right thing, too," I said. "You could shake up the energy so the thing gets aired and dealt with. Or you could not, and the energy could get the phone to ring ten minutes from now with a headhunter on the other end of it calling you with the greatest job in the world."
"And this is exactly what I was thinking," said Kristin. "Something is going to shift. That's what I was after. Whatever it is, cool, I'm ready for it."
"You are Zena," I said.
"If I am, I'm a kind of nerdy, 4H, Little House on the Prairie version of Zena," said Kristin. I love that she got into the archetype right away. We need mythic figures to inspire us in the zombie wars. Struggles between reality and delusion and between fear and trust at work are personal and sometimes wrenching and, worst of all, isolating. We need to talk about zombies and toad people and co-workers in a trance all the time. We need to talk about energy and spark and truth-telling in every meeting and hallway. You could do some of that, right now.
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