There is a type of caterpillar called a processionary caterpillar, so named because one will establish a direction and all the others will fall in very closely behind and move in the same path. As a matter of fact, the followers’ behaviors becomes so automatic that their eyes become half-closed as they shut out the world around them and let the leader do all the thinking and decision making about which direction to pursue. Their behavior is rote and automatic.
An experiment by the French naturalist Jean-Henri Fabre demonstrated the rigidity of the processionary caterpillars’ behavior when he enticed the leader to start circling the edge of the large flower pot. The other caterpillars followed suit in a tight process, forming a closed circle in which the distinctions between leader and follower became totally blurred, and the path had no beginning and no ending. Instead of soon getting bored with the nonproductive activity, the caterpillars kept up their mindless search for several days and nights until they dropped off the edge of the flowerpot from exhaustion and starvation. Relying totally on instinct, past experience, custom, and tradition, the caterpillars achieve nothing because they mistook activity for achievement.
I believe that employees can fall into the trap of blindly following their leader easily. Innovation and creativity, risk taking, and strategy is lost when they act like a drone rather than an individual leader of themselves and an example to others. While the business may not suffer if an individual contributor’s behaviors are automatic and without direction, the business may see drastic performance improvement if they have their “eyes wide open.”
If you find your employees are “circling the pot,” here are a few helpful tips for leaders to increase their motivation and hold them accountable for higher performance.
- Delegate assignments that are especially interesting to an employee and empower them to take the lead and own the assignment.
- Recognize and reward good displays of individual leadership (innovation and creativity, risk taking, strategy).
- Teach team members about being accountable. Help them understand what it means to be accountable and the power and freedom that comes from doing your best.
- When a team member fails to act as an individual leader, debrief the experience and discuss better behaviors, attitudes, and actions for future situations.
- Talk openly about the importance of fulfilling responsibilities, as well as exceeding expectations.