Have you ever made a seemingly innocuous statement, or executed a “normal” business action and, in return, experienced surprisingly angry or retaliatory reactions? That is, reactions that were far out of proportion to your original intentions, that were meant as benign and “inconsequential” acts? If so, you were experiencing, first hand, the results of Chaos Theory at work.
James Brown (fictitious name) is the CEO and Managing Director of a large utilities company in a mid-western state. He frequently visits offices of his managers, and, while there, he also makes the rounds and chats with their employees, answering questions, receiving feedback, and so on. On one such visit, Mr. Brown encountered a group of employees clustered in the coffee room, excitedly poring over and discussing a news item in the Wall Street Journal. Seizing upon the opportunity to talk to a number of employees at once, he approached the group [Mr. Brown had just returned from a long overseas trip and was interested in conducting his business in this plant as expeditiously as possible, before jet-lag overtook him – the larger the number of employees, the greater his “reach” for the day, and the sooner he could achieve his sense of having fulfilled the obligation of “keeping in touch with the troops.”] Therefore, Mr. Brown waded into the midst of the group to join in their conversation which, as it turned out, was about deregulation of the utilities industry.
The employees welcomed his presence and explained that they were deeply concerned about what this move might mean to the industry. Mr. Brown, tired from his long trip and distracted by his recent talk with the plant’s manager [productivity was down], was disappointed to find himself in the middle of a political discussion. He, therefore, experienced the employee comments as simply an overreaction and “unprofessional whine.” Consequently, before he could stem the flow of his words, he had said exactly that. “This sounds like just unprofessional whining to me!” he thundered. His outburst had the effect of dissolving the group’s vibrancy into stunned silence. An immediate attempt to retract his piercing comments were not met with a high degree of receptiveness, as the mood had descended down the scale to distinct chilliness. In addition to the embarrassment of his humbling exit from the coffee room, he was later to learn that a junior employee overhearing the exchange, during his first day at the firm and while taking a coffee break with his group, was, in fact, the nephew of the Chairman of the Board of Trustees of Mr. Brown’s utility company. The remainder of the scenario is predictable and can likely be imagined without going into further detail.
But the point is that, in a seemingly small, innocent, and unguarded moment, Mr. Brown sowed the seeds for his dismissal. Because the Board Chairman, upon hearing of his nephew’s distress during the exchange, made it his new-found mission to closely monitor
Mr. Brown’s performance.
A more recent, and more public, example of a remark gone awry is that of Lawrence Summers, President of Harvard University, who mentioned in a throw-away line that men were better at math and science than were women [current research supports this contention, by the way, and there are complicated reasons why this is so]. Regardless of the long-term ramifications of his statement in relation to his job [there were faculty censures of him as well wide-spread public outcries before the matter was ultimately resolved], one of the unintended, long-term results of his “innocuous” action, is that Mr. Summers will go down in history as the Harvard President who proclaimed that “girls aren’t up to the challenge” [that’s not exactly what he said, but it’s what he’s popularly viewed as saying]. And, indeed, Mr. Summers was forced to resign his position.
To debrief on what Mr. Brown and Mr. Summers fell prey to, let me briefly explain Chaos Theory and the elements of its workings in the business environment, or other formal organizations. Clearly defined, chaos, or chaotic events, are the unexpected consequences of seemingly small actions of “inconsequential” behaviors. Chaos Theory has its basis in quantum physics and holds that: Not only do we influence our reality, but, to some degree, we actually create it. (Gary Zukav, The Dancing Wu Li Masters). John Wheeler, who was a physicist at Princeton University, wrote that the universe, in some strange sense, is brought into being by the participation of those who are a part of that universe.
Popularly stated, the simplified Theory of Chaos is that, “If a butterfly flaps its wings in Tokyo, it causes a tornado in Texas.” One might ask why this bit of philosophy and science is important to the conduct of business and to those who manage organizations? The central meaning of chaos theory is achieved when one realizes that the smallest of actions in an organization can have prodigious ramifications — as in Mr. Brown’s case. One then becomes aware of the magnitude and importance of each human interaction and the impact of these interactions on the organization.
This awareness, alone, can be a powerful tool for the knowledgeable executive and can mold and temper his or her professional reactions. For example, knowing that the slightest action can set off a firestorm, as in Mr. Summer’s case, and that this fact is supported by a large body of theory [called Chaos Theory] one can feel secure in structuring daily interactions wisely and mindfully. To take the simple example of Mr. Brown: had he been more attuned to himself and to his behavioral tendencies when very tired, he would simply (and wisely) have postponed a plant visit planned for the day
after his return from Asia. In other words, had he considered the matter carefully, he would have planned that day’s activities so that he interacted, solely, with trusted confidantes and with those individuals who would not be prone to take offense at ill-advised words spoken while in a state of exhaustion.
So what is the message here for executives? What can be derived from the teachings of Chaos Theory and then applied to the broader scope of a manager’s life?
The message can be summarized in a few statements, known as the “Three Recognitions of Chaos Theory in The Practice of Management:”
The First, is to Recognize that everything that you do is under serious scrutiny;
The Second …Recognize that you are the employees’ friend only so long as they want you to be — any untoward message or action can change the category from “friend” to “enemy,” irreversibly; and
The Third …Recognize, therefore, that all actions, no matter how small or seemingly inconsequential, must be self-monitored on a regular, consistent, and on-going basis, for their content and continuous appropriateness, and, even more importantly, for the reactions that they might incur.
“Remember the Butterfly!” my graduate management students used to say. This was the slogan adopted for their management practice after they had become familiar with Chaos Theory and had found an explanation for the chaotic events that they were experiencing as managers. Chaos Theory brought new meaning to their management efforts, especially after they had all experienced the first “bite” from chaotic events. One of the reasons that first experiences with chaotic events are so surprising is that we are often told in our management classes that we are not to “sweat the small stuff” — that we are, instead, to “take care of the big stuff” and the “small stuff will take care of itself.” [This is a quote from one of my management professors, but every management student has heard a similar bromide.]
By not “sweating” the small stuff, one is led, inexorably, into chaotic events, because one’s management belief structure has been formed to consider “small matters” as inconsequential, insignificant and beneath one’s notice. Nothing could be further from the truth!
When Chaos Theory was first explored as an explanatory theory for management practice, Dan Griffiths, Ann Hart and Billie Blair wrote: “A great many facets of administrative work cannot be described, explained, or predicted by current [management] theories…[managers] are chagrined when seemingly minor and innocuous events that are quickly forgotten surface later as major lawsuits, noisy demonstrations, acrimonious confrontations, or strikes. These events do not seem to be related to the [manager’s] competence, foresight, intelligence, knowledge, or sensitivity. Because
these events are unrelated to the customary relationships that characterize a leader’s work, they represent a form of disorder that reappears with seeming regularity.”
As you observe your work as a manager and leader, observe with fresh application the incidents that have preceded truly chaotic events and begin to chronicle for yourself what these events consisted of — I think you’ll be amazed to find that all chaotic events have their roots in a very small, “triggering” incident. And, as you look at your practice of management, “Remember the Butterfly!”