On Domino Effects

I have been thinking about Domino Effects for a few months now, especially after watching Trevor’ Noah’s powerful speech. I started to see it everywhere around me at work. One thing that a senior leader says in a meeting tips a domino, which leads to another domino, and creates a wave across the organization. Right now, a lot of those waves seem to be fear-based. And part of me wonders: do leaders realize the kinds of waves they spread? And if they did, would they show up differently to account for the 10th domino down the line that affects a low-level worker who either gets more work or has more psychological fear as a result of diluted gossip?

From my own personal experience, I was in a situation recently where I felt like a coworker challenged my suggestion that we try to be inclusive of everyone on the team in how we communicated our mission. I won’t go into specifics, but that was part of a bigger domino thread that I have been part of around diversity and inclusion and being empathetic to underdogs. It was one domino in a bigger train of dominoes, one that is deeply important and personal to me, starting with the Black community, going into the Asian community, and going into so many employees who are unintentionally marginalized. Luckily, that person and I had a heart-to-heart afterwards and we were able to understand where each other was coming from and it was clearly not the intent of that person.

The more important point here is that domino effects provide a lot of context that we may not fully comprehend without having psychologically safe conversations. It’s hard to know what kinds of domino waves someone has been part of in their personal and professional lives. And it’s also hard to know how the words that we use and the things that we do might set off their own train of dominos. The only way to really understand the context behind someone’s interpretations is to ask and have a safe conversation about it.

With great power comes great responsibility. I think we as leaders of teams have to practice (a) having empathy for people’s domino journeys and ask thoughtful questions about their context, especially when it’s completely different from our own background, (b) create environments for psychologically-safe conversations, and (c) foresee the 10th domino effect of things we say, things we do, things we reward in our teams. Understand the waves we create, whether intentionally or not, and strive to create waves of empowerment, creativity, inspiration, innovation, community.

Another part of this is the Cancel Culture we live in today. Young people are so quick to “cancel” a person, an app, or a company with one screw-up. It’ sucks. I hope it course-corrects. But it does signal that we need to be able to anticipate the consequences of our actions and words more in this digital world.

When I reflect on this from a self-care standpoint, I think this still holds. By investing in our self-care, we are able to get ahead of the 10th domino the next day as leaders, because we show up at our worst when we are under-slept, stressed, under pressure, and unhappy. Our likelihood of spreading positive waves increases significantly when we are feeling at our best and getting rest. It’s not fair to “fake it” anymore. We need to manage burnout during this time, and it starts with us.

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