I first read the “Broken Windows” theory in 1982, the year Dr. George Kelling, a criminologist, and political scientist James Wilson advanced their ideas for how community policing could help prevent neighborhood crimes.
“Social psychologists and police officers tend to agree that if a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken,” Wilson and Kelling wrote in The Atlantic. In their article, they maintained that urban crime doesn’t develop in a vacuum. It is the result of social neglect and decay, and small problems can ultimately lead to a breakdown in civic life.
Kelling died recently and when I read the obituary recounting his life, I was reminded of how the “broken windows” are always in our line of sight, in life and in our work. The signs are always there. When we neglect the signs, small problems are quickly magnified.
We see the signs of decay in corporate cultures when morale and pride plunge during a critical period of change, yet we fail to investigate why managers couldn’t motivate and inspire their people. Or how teams may falter or even collapse because efficiency moves designed by consultants looked good on paper but failed to anticipate the devastating effects “rightsizing” would have on those who remain and mourn the elimination of their co-workers.
We see the signs of resistance in organizations whose labor or trade unions have unresolved grievances or contract issues. It’s the union members who “work to rule,” adhering strictly to rules and hours in order to reduce output and efficiency of their employer. It’s the increasing numbers of hours lost due to illness or workplace injuries, or the rising numbers of Unfair Labor Practice claims filed by union members against their companies.
It’s the HR manager who punishes an hourly employee for taking extra bereavement days to bury his late father and put his affairs in order while co-workers on his shift watch silently and know their time, too, will come.
It’s the supervisor who orders employees to operate unsafe equipment and who closes his eyes to the manufacture of flawed products to meet shift quotas, regardless of quality.
As Wilson and Kelling wrote, if a window in a building is broken and left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken.
As strategists and counselors, we have to remember that no amount of communication will overcome poor policies and decision-making. It’s our job to point out the “broken windows” to our leaders and make certain they are repaired.