A Guide to Dysfunctional Management and the Evil Workplace
September 8th, 2013 by William

The Chaos Theory

Everyone knows how chaotic the modern workplace can be. That’s because chaos is usually the norm for most organizations. On any given day you probably don’t have to look too far to see some form of dysfunction, be it nasty office politics, people being blamed for things they didn’t do, people being thrown under the bus for any, and all, reasons, the resident pyromaniac lighting a fire that sends the student body left, us v. them attitudes, and the list goes on. Most people take the dysfunction in their workplace in stride (most often there’s nothing you can do about it anyway) and “play along.” By “playing along” I mean The Red Queen Effect is in place. Last week’s post taught us that we actually enjoy (experience Schadenfreude) a level of dysfunction especially if it results in a rival coworker ending up with the short straw in the Stump the Dummy lottery.

That said, did you ever think that the cards are stacked against a workplace actually being functional? We all dream of working in one but a perfectly functional workplace is just plain impossible to exist. As I explain in my book Puttin’ Cologne on the Rickshaw every workplace organization “has its own brand of dysfunction.” The fact is Mother Nature despises perfect function just as she despises a vacuum. In mathematics this is what’s called “The Chaos Theory.” But unlike it only being a theory in math, its reality when talking about organizational dynamics.

Chaos Theory studies the behavior of dynamic systems that are highly sensitive to their initial conditions, an effect which we’ve all heard of: The Butterfly Effect. You know if you kill a butterfly in the Amazon rain forest it causes global warming.

In technical terms Chaos Theory is defined as: “small differences in initial conditions (for instance in math a rounding error) yields widely diverging outcomes for dynamic systems. This in effect renders long-term prediction of what’s going to happen impossible. This divergence effect [slip into dysfunctionality] happens even though these systems are considered deterministic, meaning that their future behavior can be fully determined.” In other words, what we believe to be the deterministic (predictable) nature of a system (an organization) does not make it predictable at all. This behavior is known as deterministic chaos, or simply chaos. American mathematician and meteorologist, and a pioneer of chaos theory Edward Lorenz (1917 – 2008) described Chaos Theory as follows: “When the present determines the future, but the approximate present does not approximately determine the future.”

Chaos theory can be observed in many natural systems, weather being the best example, or for something more near and dear to our hearts: organizational behavior.

In common usage, “chaos” means “a state of disorder”. However, in chaos theory, the term is defined more precisely. The universally accepted mathematical definition of chaos says that for a dynamic system to be classified as chaotic, it must have the following properties

  • It must be sensitive to initial conditions
  • It must be topologically mixing (the way in which constituent parts are interrelated or arranged)
  • Its periodic orbits (the direction or path) must be dense

To put that into terms that relate to a workplace organization we have:

  • The organization is sensitive to its initial conditions: this relates to how the organization began–its initial condition. For instance was it a start-up organization? Was it a spin-off of another organization? Was it started by a narcissistic sociopath? Believe it or not this has quite a bearing on whether an organization becomes dysfunctional and how fast it happens
  • Topologically mixing: this means that the organization’s inhabitants will have many different personalities, needs, wants, ambitions and, more importantly, how far they will go (evil behavior) to get what they want
  • Its periodic orbits must be dense: this means that all the inhabitants are focused on a single path–supposedly the organization’s vision or mission

Chaos is the science of surprises, of the nonlinear and the unpredictable. This is exactly what workplace life is all about. In the workplace you must expect the unexpected. While most traditional science deals with predictable phenomena like gravity, electricity, or chemical reactions, Chaos Theory deals with nonlinear things that are effectively impossible to predict or control, like turbulence, weather, the stock market, our brain states, organizational behavior, and so on.

Chaos is not simply about disorder. Chaos theory explains the transition between order (functionality) and disorder (dysfunctionality). The key principles of Chaos are as follows:

The Butterfly Effect: the theory here is that one event causes something, even a world away, to happen. For instance a hurricane in Florida is caused by a butterfly flapping its wings in California. A more rigorous way to express this is that small changes in the initial conditions lead to drastic changes in the results. Organizational life is an ongoing demonstration of this principle. Hire one sociopath in the early stages of an organization’s existence and the organization will be changed forever–and not for the good.

Unpredictability: Because the initial organizational conditions, and how they will interact, cannot be predicted in any sufficient detail, we cannot hope to predict the ultimate fate of the organization. Well in a way we actually can–the organization will slip into dysfunctionality–Chaos Theory tells us that. Since it is impossible to measure the effects of all the butterflies in the organization, accurate long-range plans (predictions) will always remain virtually impossible to effect. Brings new meaning to the effectiveness of those five-year plans many organizations waste their time on creating. Most management can’t decide on what to do for lunch let alone what they’ll do in five years.

Topological Mixing: Organizational turbulence (a mathematical term that perfectly describes the flurry of human behavior in an organizational setting) ensures that two adjacent points (people) in a complex system (organization) will eventually end up in very different positions after some time has elapsed. Mixing is thorough because turbulence occurs at all levels of the organization. It is also nonlinear: most often the effects of organizational mixing cannot be “unmixed,” that is it’s tough to rid an organization of dysfunction that’s taken years to evolve.

Feedback: mathematically “systems” often become chaotic when there is feedback present. From an organizational perspective a good example of this would be the effect the performance review process really has on an organization. Since all performance review processes dwell on the negative it’s no wonder the organization will slip into chaos.

Fractals: In mathematics a fractal is a never-ending pattern. Fractals are infinitely complex patterns that are similar across different systems–in our case organizations. They are created by repeating a simple process over and over in an ongoing way. Sounds like organizational dysfunction to me–i.e., organizational amnesia. In a mathematical sense fractals are driven by recurring events, or patterns–thus fractals are actually an image of a dynamic system like an organization. That is, a fractal is the picture of Chaos.

So when you go back to work and are wondering just how and why your workplace got so screwed up know that it was inevitable and predestined by mother nature–it’s just the Chaos Theory in action. Instead of getting depressed about it have some fun and try to identify the principles of The Chaos Theory at work.

My hope is that this post will give you an enlightening and entertaining look into why organizational dysfunction is written in the stars and inevitable in any organization no matter hard you might try to stop it. In fact the effort to try to stop it (feedback) actually contributes to the dysfunctionality (topological mixing).

The scary thing to remember is that organizational chaos is really preferred by most management teams. It provides both the necessary daily drama for their sociopathic thrill seeking all the while providing sufficient cover for their sociopathic manipulation and abusive behavior.


2 Responses to “The Chaos Theory”
  1. Anonymous says

    I really feel like the writer has extensive expertise in this topic. Quite very good post. I identified your internet site ideal for my demands. Thanks for sharing the great concepts. This is an interesting and so well taken care of weblog….

  2. The one thing I find missing in Most discussions of chaos and such is the idea of energy addition.
    Systems tend to disorder….entropy….unless substantial amounts of energy are ADDED to the system to maintain such order. Speaking as someone with years of experience in manufacturing, I’ve seen every possible malfunction of what is, or was, known as ‘the process’. The Process being the order of operations and the requirements of each, in order to end up with a proper finished product. Unless energy is constantly added to such complex systems, disorder and broken ‘stuff’ will result. The more conditions and rigorous the manufacturing specification, the more unique the failure mode.

    The best systems are highly fault tolerant by nature. The best manufacturing is done, not by constant ‘quality’ inspections, but rather by people who are invested in the outcome.

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