A cobblestone sails through the window of an office building, shattering the glass in its wake. This act of vandalism impacts more than just the person who owns the building. It impacts the people who work there and the surrounding community.
In 1982 James Wilson and George Kelling, used broken windows as a metaphor for disorder within neighborhoods. Their theory links disorder and incivility within a community to subsequent occurrences of serious crime.
The theory further posits that the prevalence of disorder creates fear in the minds of area residents, causing them to withdraw from the greater community. Once it begins, the cycle feeds on itself. Disorder results in crime, which results in greater disorder, which results in more serious crime.
Broken windows theory
Broken windows theory had an enormous impact on police policy throughout the 1990s and remained influential into the 21st century. Perhaps the most notable application of the theory was in New York City under the direction of Police Commissioner William Bratton.
The broken windows syndrome happens in companies too
He went after the graffiti artists, subway turnstile jumpers, panhandlers, loiters, etc. The homeless were required to stay in shelters, graffiti was removed within 24 hours and yes, broken windows were identified and repaired.
In the beginning, he took a lot of flak for going after the so-called “petty” criminals. The general sentiment was – “Who cares about panhandlers, hookers, graffitists? They don’t hurt anyone”. Wrong – The reality was and is – they do hurt people – they can take down entire neighborhoods.
Responsibility for the strength of a company’s culture
Steve Gruenert and Todd Whitaker once wrote:
The culture of any organization is shaped by the worst behavior the leader is willing to tolerate
The broken windows theory also applies to organizational culture
The implications of the broken window theory for the business world are profound! What would happen to a company which prides itself on its commitment to customer service yet retains a receptionist who consistently provides poor service and is rude to the customers.
Left unattended, this behavior is noticed by other people in the company who begin to feel that customer service must not be that important if management doesn’t care enough to correct the receptionist problem. Soon, other areas of customer service begin to falter until the previous cultural norms are replaced by new attitudes of indifference and distrust.
Similar to those fearful residents, who would withdraw from the community plagued by disorder, employees just might withdraw, they just might compensate, for disorder and incivility in the organization should it be left unattended.
Organizational culture – it shapes and sustains both employee productivity and business results
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Highlight from LinkedIn group discussion:
Lawrence G G Norton:
Whilst I agree with the identification of the symptoms the “cure” is the next step. The New York style campaign of Zero Tolerance is effective but the real efficiencies are generated by creating a culture of “You are CERTAIN” to be caught! The decisions to misbehave, create a nuisance and break the law are varied and require different long term remedies. To change the behaviours the perpetrator has to be convinced that they are CERTAIN to be caught. This certainty is the most effective deterrent as the “buzz” is removed if you believe that you are almost certain to be caught and then processed. The perpetrator will look for an easier target. In Melbourne Australia on public transport we were plagued by graffiti vandals. Every night we removed the graffiti and CCTV was used to catch them. The result was we drove them off as 1/ their graffiti vanished and 2/ they almost always got caught. The savings were enormous and within a year the cost had shrunk to less than 10% of the original.
Torben I recall the Broken Window Theory, as I was a magistrate at the time and we conferenced on this subject. It opened our eyes to how bad behaviour encouraged bad behaviour outside of the accepted peer group influences. Social norms, i.e physical and sexual abuse, were accepted behaviour because nobody was doing anything about them. I do believe we are living in a more caring age. But the problems can only be fixed by pro-active attention on the spot and not by waiting twenty years for royal commissions etc.
It always surprises me, watching the reactions to a “broken window”. The most common one seems to be that “someone else, someone higher up than me, will take care of this.” Unfortunately, they seem to be counting on a person who may not have even SEEN the window to react to it. We are all the practitioners of our organizational culture, and our actions are the clear indicator of what that culture is.
Urban Knutsson Careful
The broken window theory is obvious to most people who have lived in an area losing their income, their industry, their hope. Both the broken glass and the reasons need to be addressed, urgently. When this spiral is seen in a prosperous environment, like NYC or Google – it’s time to think, hard. A disloyal “don’t care” culture will asphyxiate the organization.
The other blade, which is as dangerous but less visible, is that “being certain to be caught and then processed” induces fear. Fear of being “disloyal” when talking about real issues, of being Not PC. Longstanding fear combined with anger (e.g. due to a reorganization or a bad managerial behaviour) becomes hate. When hate becomes the culture, you are in a bad state. Really bad…
Handle disloyal acts wisely, I say, and make it obvious, easy, nice and prosperous to do the right thing (esp. when NPC).
Encourage, promote, and favor righteous loyalty.
For me this type of culture reveals lack of leadership in general. So maybe spotting this type of behavior is a good indicator for the shape leadership of a company is in. Have you seen messed up company tea kitchens? That’s where it starts I guess.
David Gunning Another excellent article Torben this time covering the “broken window” theory. I have a lot of first hand experience of organisations choosing to ignore early signs of poor behaviour that manifests itself later in senior leaders, or sees the organisation itself brought into disrepute. My personal view – “take care of the small things the big things will take care of themselves”.
The standard you walk past is the standard you accept. I’m not sure who to attribute this quote to but it is spot on.
Torben .. this is gold .. it really resonates with me … I’ve heard it said in a management context that the standard you walk past becomes the standard you accept.. it’s the little things done poorly that stop you from getting to the big things.
As always cause and effect have a role to play. But in the broken windows theory I do wonder whether the culture vandalism is an effect rather than an initial cause. The question might be what caused the vandalism in the first place. More than likely there was a vacuum that the vandalism was responding to. Similarly within a corporate culture has there been an absence of something that gives rise to subsequent behaviour variations. Sometimes leaders need to look more deeply for what is going wrong and the broken windows theory might be one of the first indications of failure somewhere else. Punishment whilst it may limit behaviour deviations doesn’t necessarily cure the problem.
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