Metastability is a term from physics referring to a seemingly stable state of a dynamic system which is easily provoked into a more natural state or a state of least energy. A common example is a ball resting on top of a hill where any outside motion will get the ball rolling in either direction, yet for a moment it stays right at the top.
Metastability is also found in management. Quite frequently we start leadership training with our customers by asking them to recall their best and their worst bosses throughout their careers. Interestingly enough, the answers are always similar, with metastability topping the list of traits of the worst leader ever. It is most often phrased like: “I never knew which version of him I’d encounter”, “She could change from best friend to she-wolf in a second”, “Going into the office I never could predict what mood I would be met with”, “He had good days and bad days, and the good days where the worst, because we never knew how long they lasted”, etc.
If you’ve ever had a metastable manager you know what we are referring to. You know the anxiety that comes from never know what will happen next. You know the immense amounts of energy spend figuring out ways to protect yourself from the outbursts that seem to come out of nowhere or without any warning. You have seen colleagues break down and burst into tears, reduced to a shell, a fraction of their former sparkling self. And maybe you’ve even experienced the embarrassment yourself that came when you did not dare to speak up because of your mortgage and bread-winner obligations.
As managers, and eventually leaders, we have an obligation to create a productive work place. Keeping our emotions in check is a crucial part of that. If you have been able to get away with the bad habit of losing your temper all too frequently, it is time to stop. You may suffer from the delusion that the people in your organization don’t mind or have gotten used to your cranky, mood-swing ways. You may even use phrases like “Well, that’s just me”. The truth is that we never get used to abusive behavior, and metastability is one of them.
Predictability and rationality builds trust (=increases SHIELD) which is paramount when leading for performance. Going from metastable to stable may very well be the best thing you can do to increase your and your team’s results.