If you’ve read your Gladwell, you may well remember Broken Window theory. It goes a little something like this. If an empty building has a few broken windows and no one comes along to repair them, then you may well find that along come the vandals to break some more of the windows. And if still no one comes along to repair them, the damage will spiral quickly. More broken windows. Maybe a break in, maybe theft from what remains, maybe squatters will turn up and move in. The answer, according to the theory, is to fix problems when they are small. Before they escalate, become too big and unmanageable.
I’ve seen broken windows theory take place in reality.
One of my early HR roles included doing the people stuff at a tired, dark, miserable warehouse. The site was scheduled for future closure, and no one wanted to invest any time or money for its upkeep in the meantime.
And the more the building decayed, the more the building decayed.
Graffiti on the walls.
Badly lit corridors, with peeling paintwork.
Holes in the sagging, ancient carpet.
Dirty crockery piled in the kitchen sink, growing green.
Aged, yellowing posters on the noticeboard, telling tales of canteen menus long past.
Casual, deliberate damage.
A broken furniture graveyard.
Rubbish indifferently dumped, wherever, whatever.
Literally, broken windows, grimed with ancient dirt.
And because nobody cared, nobody cared.
A slow, determined, deterioration.
But broken window theory is not just a building thing, but a cultural thing. A people thing. It applies to organisations too.
How the leaders behave.
The way that people talk to each other.
The exercise of power.
What gets valued.
What gets done.
What gets rewarded, or punished.
The rules that are enforced, or ignored.
The language that is used.
The little organisational (bad) habits.
Windows of, to, within your culture. And sometimes, corporate vandalism occurs.
Tolerating, accepting, or failing to tackle even small problems in these spaces will lead to the rot setting in within your culture, as quickly as it will within the walls of your building. What is allowed, flourishes. Broken can become normal.
Back to the theory again, just for a moment. When you maintain a good environment, keep it clean, fix that which is broken, take good care of the place, physically and culturally, it sends a clear signal. This is our normal. Take your disorder, your window breaking rocks, some place else.
When small problems arise, with the way people lead, talk, behave, do, then we need to address them. Fix the broken window and fix it fast. Because if you don’t, before you know it the problem has escalated beyond your control.
Over at your place, are any of your windows broken?
And what are you doing to repair them?