Leadership Butterfly Effect: A tactic to vastly improve teamwork

There is a concept in chaos theory called the butterfly effect where a butterfly flapping its wings conceivably causes a hurricane weeks later in a different location. It’s a bit unsettling, and it makes me wonder what other seemingly small event can cause a large apparently incongruous result.

For example, what little things do leaders do that greatly affect teamwork on their teams? Does the fact that the CEO drinks coffee from a BIG BOSS mug and pounds her desk with abnormally large fists while smoking a cigar and yelling at subordinates for their inadequacies perpetuate a culture of fear, which causes people to hide their weaknesses, which causes a political environment, which results in lost productivity, and people having personal animosity towards each other?

Does she realize this as her unusually large fists hammer the mahogany?

Call it the leadership butterfly effect.

If this is true, why can’t the opposite be true? What seemingly small things can a leader do that will affect teamwork in a disproportionately positive way? Here’s an idea:

What if a leader starts to be publicly and explicitly open about both praising AND constructively criticizing both themselves and everyone else? Call it Symmetrical Reality in that everyone is responsible for delivering a good dose of reality, both positive and negative, to all peers and teammates.

What’s the butterfly effect of that?

At first it’s probably a shock to the team because it seems like people either gravitate towards public criticism and no praise, or public praise and no criticism. The team may have to go through a metamorphosis to fully absorb this way of working.

Metamorphosis makes me think of butterflies. Can the butterfly effect of a leader using symmetrical reality cause a different kind of butterfly effect? A team metamorphosis?

When a team of high performers first starts working together, they are unsure of each other. It’s like a teamwork larva, crawling around, with the potential to change into something better. If the leader makes the wrong move, and starts desk pounding, over-egoing, and hiding behind insecurities, the teamwork will never progress beyond the larva stage.

However, if the leader starts by implementing the praise in public, criticize in private methodology, the teamwork will start to transform. The leader will have to work with her team so it’s not just her doing the praising, but it’s everyone praising each other for their successes. This helps build relationships, and the team will grow more comfortable with each other.

This is the cocoon stage as the entire team becomes wrapped in a silky chrysalis of positivity. The team has progressed, but the teamwork transformation is not yet complete. Business is difficult and hard issues must be worked through openly as a team. Open praise is great, but open praise and open constructive criticism is even better.

Once relationships are built and the team atmosphere is solidified, the leader must complete the transformation by starting to offer up constructive public criticism when necessary under the general guideline that no one should take it personally and everyone will be praised and criticized as necessary to make sure the team is progressing to the best of everyone’s abilities.

As the entire team absorbs this way of working, they will emerge from their cocoon as a full blown teamwork butterfly, a most beautiful creature. The team will have such strong peer relationships that they will be able to openly discuss what each other does well and what they need to improve upon, in good faith, without people constantly trying to triangulate and deflect criticism elsewhere. They will debate these points and all actively work to get better. They will be a constantly evolving, self critical, self improving machine. This is symmetrical reality, teamwork in its ultimate form. It’s the teamwork butterfly.

The butterfly effect is a weird concept, and I generally don’t like chaos. However, I do believe that seemingly small changes in leadership can have big results. So, to put it in terms of chaos theory: a small change in the initial leadership conditions can cause a full team metamorphosis. Or, in other words, a butterfly effect can cause a butterfly metamorphosis.

Let’s call that the double butterfly effect. It’s a mind bender.


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