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?
Love this post Gemma. One of your best! Very thought provoking,,,,
Great post Gemma. One of the challenges with a company’s culture is that many are simply unable (or too busy) to see those broken windows, one by one…
I have to say that I do and don’t agree with you here Gemma. I do think you’re correct to say that if things that are wrong are left unchecked then they will become accepted and feed into the culture of an organisation.
But “Broken Window Theory” is a highly contentious theory of why crime occurs and my main criticism of it is that it tackles the symptoms, not the cause. To use your example of the warehouse, the problem is that the management weren’t upfront with the employees that they planned to close it.
One of the many problems with Broken Window Theory is that it led to the “zero tolerance” policing approach – an approach that ultimately achieved short term results only. In HR terms it’s like issuing a disciplinary warning to anyone who’s late, regardless of the circumstances. It leads to a “policy police” approach – which I’m sure isn’t something you’re advocating!!
Disagreed with on my own blog. The outrage!
But seriously, you make a very relevant point about symptoms and cause. Some of the behaviours I allude to in the list in the post take place within a system, and it is necessary to understand where they come from or what causes them. I’m a big believer of the concept of people behaving the way that makes sense to them at that time and in relation to their own circumstances. Therefore if someone uses what on the outside looks to be an poor or inappropriate leadership style, part of addressing that is understanding why that feels right to them.
That said, I am still a big believer of calling stuff out.
If I take the example about the warehouse in the post. Everyone knew it was closing and that was part of the problem. But what if someone had challenged the way the place was being treated the first time someone threw rubbish on the floor rather than bother putting it in the bin?
Sadly, I have worked for a number of companies in the past where poor behaviour has been very acceptable. I’ve blogged in the past about a manager I once worked for who routinely bullied people in public. And they in turn bullied others. There was even a slang word invented for it, so entrenched was the behaviour: ‘the pineapple’. As in getting a pineapple, somewhere unpleasant. But that started somewhere, and often in my experience has started small.
And you know me too well to know that I would advocate blanket police type policies!
I do and don’t agree with Simon’s point 😉
I agree that to focus solely on “broken windows” would be a short-sighted approach that may only deal with symptoms; however, when applied with a deeper dive into issues you can have the benefit of tackling roots causes AND make some immediate and visible improvements.
There is a need for the broken window approach – just as long as it’s not the only approach.
Great post Gem – anything that gets me thinking and commenting this early on a Monday must have punch!
Does the same apply to car parks/
Good post. I haven’t heard of the theory before, but i’m certainly going to look it up now.