The Butterfly Effect of Recognition: What We Can Learn from Chaos Theory

May 28, 2013 Darcy Jacobsen

Put on your safety goggles and hold on to your Bunsen burners. I’m going to do Science (again).

Last week here at the office, my cubicle neighbor and pal Kerry sent me a link to a Wikipedia page and threw down the gauntlet: “You might be able to base a blog on this,” she wrote. “The Butterfly Effect.”

Might? As if I could ever resist the opportunity to use science as a lens for corporate culture and talent management… Hahah!

The Butterfly Effect, it turns out, is an interesting notion from Chaos Theory that has some eye-opening implications for organizational development and change management.  (And not, as you might be thinking, anything to do with Ashton Kutcher.)

In 1979, a meteorological researcher named Edward Lorenz suggested that the flap of a butterfly’s tiny wings somewhere in South America could set off a tornado in Texas a month from now. He was using the example to illustrate the idea that one tiny change can result in a huge impact on a large complex system—like weather patterns.

Or like organizations.

That’s because it is in the “chaos” of the small day-to-day activities of employees and managers that we often see the most far-reaching and unpredictable effects (positive or negative) on organizations.

Here are a few things about complex, nonlinear systems that we can take from Chaos Theory:

  • Systems are very sensitive to initial conditions, which set the stage for the ultimate behavior.
  • Systems tend to cluster their activity around and iterate on a typical behavior, called an attractor.
  • Systems tend to be dissipative, meaning without a continued driving force they cease to move.

These three ideas are really important as we look at how organizations behave and as we seek to create a productive, engaged workforce.

The Butterfly Effect itself is not predictable in its outcome, because it is such a tiny, singular event. But what if you multiplied those events exponentially, as you can do with organizations? Then you would begin to see many little events that have a strong, iterative and ongoing effect on your outcomes, consistently driving a controlled change for the better.

I probably don’t even need to say that employee recognition can be this kind of Butterfly Effect, but I will.

  • Recognition is an ideal initial event to create change in a complex system, because it is organic and inspired, and because it is self-propagating.
  • The iterative (repeating and growing) nature of public recognition means recognition-worthy behavior is constantly being reinforced and replicating itself, but because it is guided by your stated values, it stays close to the attractor you have designated.
  • Recognition begets recognition. A healthy, well-designed recognition program becomes a constant driving force to keep the organization moving forward.

Recognition is a terrific change management tool because it flourishes within parameters you set for your company: the values and goals that form the award criteria. This essentially harnesses the chaos of day-to-day activity and directs it into the advancement of your organizational objectives.

Thanks, Kerry!


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