I LOVE seeing butterflies in a garden. They are always positive signs because they serve a few important roles.

First, like bees, they are pollinators. Second, they are an indicator of environmental health and, third, they are a toxin-free form of pest control, as they love to eat many of the tiny pests that destroy our plants.

They might be small but it turns out butterflies can have a major impact on a garden. This is what a gardener might call the butterfly effect.

Without butterflies, Singapore would not have its many magnificent gardens and its proud reputation as the greenest city in the world. In fact, part of Singapore’s transformation from “Garden City” to “City in a garden” is due to the 305 different types of butterflies found locally.

However, there is another meaning to the term. The butterfly effect is a term used to describe the phenomenon where a minor change in circumstances can cause a large change to the outcome. The phrase, which is associated with Chaos Theory, has recently been used in movies and TV shows to describe what can happen when you take small but significant actions in your life.

I want to relate the butterfly effect to the role of being a leader. I believe it often takes just one small action from a team leader to trigger a huge change in his team’s performance over time. I was reminded of the power of small changes recently when I read a book called Switch by Dan and Chip Heath.

They talk about a programme to change the health of a community that was achieved by asking people to make one small change: to buy low-fat milk instead of full-cream milk.

This change model was highly effective and can be applied to many areas of life. It makes it much easier for people to change because they only have to make one simple decision. However, it is very powerful because that one decision prompts people to think of what other ways they could be improving their health. Once they see how easy it is to make one change they are eager to make more.

Researchers have found that when you overload people with choices or ask them to make multiple changes to their behaviour they respond by doing nothing. The same is true at work when a leader asks their team to change their behaviours.

Instead of starting slowly and getting some small victories, we go on hard and fast trying to maximise our results. This usually has the opposite effect, with team members burning out or change initiatives not “sticking” and people reverting to the old ways.

This is why I encourage people in my programmes to think about the small but important changes they can make in their role. You don’t have to change everything you do to get a result. You just need to know what the right changes are to create the maximum impact. You need to know what your butterfly effect is.

To get you started on this process, here are some small but significant changes you could make with your team that would have a big impact on their performance:

•   In your meetings, share one positive thing from the last week;

•   Start an ideas board where people can share the tips and tricks they use to make their job easier;

•   Encourage your team to learn one new skill each week; and

•   Have a five-minute stand-up meeting at the start of each day or shift so everyone knows what is happening.

The next time you are walking in park or garden and see a butterfly, remind yourself of the impact this small creature can have on nature and use this lesson to help you improve your skills as a leader.


Article by Karen Schmidt, an award-winning speaker, workshop leader and facilitator with Training Edge International. She is a frontline leadership expert and describes herself as a workplace gardener who is on a mission to use her workplace gardening philosophy to help grow frontline managers into frontline leaders. For more information, e-mail karen.schmidt@trainingedgeasia.com or visit www.trainingedgeasia.com