The lion and the ant: some lessons for managers and HR


I came across the following fable recently and  I found it an interesting way of challenging the roles of the manager and HR alike in many organizations.

“Every day, a small Ant arrived at work early and starting work immediately, she produced a lot and she was happy. The boss, a lion, was surprised to see that the ant was working without supervision. He thought if the ant can produce so much without supervision, wouldn’t she produce more if she had a supervisor!

So the lion recruited a cockroach who had extensive experience as a supervisor and who was famous for writing excellent reports. The cockroach’s first decision was to set up a clocking in attendance system. He also needed a secretary to help him write and type his reports. He recruited a spider who managed the archives and monitored all phone calls.

The Lion was delighted with the cockroach’s report and asked him to produce graphs to describe production rates and analyze trends so that he could use them for presentations at board meetings. So the cockroach had to buy a new computer and a laser printer and recruit a fly to manage the IT department. The Ant , who had been once so productive and relaxed, hated this new plethora of paperwork and meetings which used up most of her time.

The lion came to the conclusion that it was high time to nominate a person in charge of the department where the ant worked. The position was given to the Cicada whose first decision was to buy a carpet and an ergonomic chair for his office.The new person in charge, the cicada, also needed a computer and a personal assistant, whom he had brought from his previous department to help him prepare a work and budget control strategic optimization plan.

The department where the ant works is now a sad place, where nobody laughs anymore and everybody has become upset. It was at that time the cicada convinced the boss, the Lion, to start a climatic study of the office environment. Having reviewed the charges of running the ant’s department, the lion found out that the production was much less than before so he recruited the Owl, a prestigious and renowned consultant to carry out an audit and suggest solutions. The Owl spent 3 months in the department and came out with an enormous report, in several volumes, that concluded that ” The Department is overstaffed..”

Guess who the lion fired first ?

The Ant of course “Because she showed lack of motivation and had a negative attitude.”

If we transpose this fable to the world of work, one is tempted to offer this fable as a good illustration of why it’s necessary to promote and implement empowerment in every organization and how the role of a manager should be to empower the team member to that he/she can do the job effectively and not be burdened by excessive layers of red tape and administrative tasks which only serve to justify and prove that actions are being taken rather than that results have been achieved.

Indeed, as we all know, the amount of reporting and administrative tasks required by an organization is inversely proportional to the effectiveness of the organization in question. The more reporting you have in an organization, the more tempting it is to conclude that performance is low.

Results speak for themselves whereas failure always seems to have to justify itself!

However, in the above fable, one has to question the motivation of the Lion. Rather than trying to improve the productivity of the ant by adding more ants (which would seem the logical step) or by simply asking the ant what needed to be done to make things better (even more logical as the ant is best placed to know what needs to be done to improve productivity at least initially), without consulting the ant, the Lion adds backroom staff because one suspects that the Lion doesn’t understand what makes the ant effective in the first place nor does the lion understand how to go about improving things, because if he did, he would have begun by asking the ant first!

All the measures the Lion takes seek to control rather than encourage and reward the ant. Why?

Perhaps it is because the Lion may be confused as to what his role is and he  seems to think that if he doesn’t implement a whole arsenal of checks and controls which allow him to monitor the ant, he isn’t playing his role as a Lion.

The Lion seems indeed to think his role as a Lion is to control and monitor the activity of the ant rather than freeing him up to be more effective. Of course,  as the working day is not endless (even for ants), the time needed to produce more and more reports means there is less time for operational issues and this impacts inevitably on the ant’s productivity and in the long run on his engagement and motivation. And so the ant becomes trapped in a vicious circle of more controls, more reports, more reports less productivity, less productivity more checks, more checks more reports, more reports less productivity and so on.

Perhaps one is reading too much into the Lion’s behaviour and perhaps his motives are more well-intentioned. However, whatever  the Lion’s motives, one cannot blame the ant for perceiving this behaviour as a demonstration of a lack of trust in his abilities to perform. Rather than consulting him and asking him what needs to be done to improve productivity, the lion deems it necessary to impose on him all sorts of checks and controls.

Is it any surprise the ant may become frustrated? As the lion is confused as to his role, is it any surprise he fails to understand why the ant is frustrated and that he concludes in error that it is because the ant is disengaged and negative?

Indeed, this is an example of the Pygmalion effect in reverse. The “lion” seeks to assert his authority rather than guide performance and imposes a command and control mode of management which generates frustration in his “ants” and this in turn in the “lion’s mind legitimates the command and control management mode generating the frustration in the first place. What a paradox!

Lessons for managers

So there is a lesson for managers here. One clear sign of a poor manager is that he/she is guilty of playing the wrong role and will spend more time checking and monitoring his/her “ant” rather than supporting them and ensuring that they have the means and resources to perform effectively .

Good managers, on the other hand, dedicate themselves to supporting, coaching, developing and rewarding their “ants”, building the environment which helps their “ants” perform better and supporting them when necessary to clear any obstacles which impede performance. Good managers either add more ants(they understand the profile and recruit similar complimentary profiles) or they work with the ant to build an action plan to optimize performance. Above all, good managers sit down with their team members at year start, set SMART objectives their “ants” can achieve and then work with them  throughout the year to ensure they remain on course. In other words, they empower their people to act and then get out of the way and let them perform but check regularly to ensure they keep on track.

So some tips for managers who want to be “good lions”:

  1. Understand your role and play it effectively: avoid the  “command and control” mode. Act as a leader. Treat others as you would have them treat you.
  2. Listen to your “ants” and ask first before acting in their place. Respect your team members and demonstrate that respect. Always be fair and treat all objectively and equally.
  3. Set clear objectives and empower your competent “ants” to act on these objectives.
  4. Get out of the way and let your “ants” perform. Don’t step in when things go wrong but support your “ants” to solve the problem themselves.
  5. Monitor progress regularly but not excessively.
  6. Demonstrate trust and respect your “ants”. Admit your mistakes. You will gain your followers respect.
  7. Support and defend your “ants” in the event of turbulence. Don’t hide behind your team. If you delegate a task, you remain responsible.
  8. Keep reporting to a minimum. Remember it is more important to talk to your team members on how they are doing than hide behind statistics.
  9. Be lean and don’t create multiple layers of management as this will only slow down decision making and frustrate good “ants”
  10. Reward and recognize good performance. Praise good performance in public. If you have to give negative feedback, do it in private.

Lessons for Human Resources who want to have “good lions” in their organization

There are also some simple lessons for Human Resource managers. Rather than promoting management practices which only serve to frustrate and block the effective ants in their organizations or which generate disengagement and lack of motivation, HR should be promoting policies and strategies which empower the ants to act effectively  and which develop them, recognize and reward them in level with their line of performance.

As importantly, HR should ensure that the Lions in the organization understand their role and how to play it, should train and develop each lion to play this role effectively and step in whenever one or more “lions” confuse their roles and switch to command and control mode too systematically. After all, every lion is also an ant to someone higher up the chain and a “command and control” management mindset only generates disengagement and demotivation and frustration throughout the organization.

Some tips for HR

  1. Clarify manager roles and responsibilities: banish “Command and control” mode and develop managers to lead.
  2. Train and empower managers to play that role
  3. Step in if some managers demonstrate role confusion or revert systematically to command and control mode.
  4. Promote corporate values which empower all employees to act at their level and show initiative.
  5. Promote a culture which listens to all employees
  6. Allow employees contribute to their own objectives
  7. Promote a lean management culture
  8. Keep reporting to a minimum
  9. Recognize and reward performance as a partnership between manager and employee
  10. Cherish not only your “lions” and but also your “ants” because performance depends on both.

Disclaimer:” The characters in the fable above are fictitious and resemblance to real people and facts and any coincidence with corporate world is purely coincidental”.

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