Broken windows theory – Applied to organizational culture

Broken windows theory – Applied to organizational culture

Broken windows theory - Applied to organizational culture

Smashed windows and organizational culture

The “Broken Windows Theory” and its application to organizational culture. The implications of the broken window theory for the business world are profound.

A broken window signals a lack of care, and invites larger acts of bad behavior

When Rudy Giuliani was Mayor of New York City he applied this criminal law theory to the neighborhoods in New York City and cleaned up graffiti, garbage thrown around, broken windows and anything that would in any way diminish the neighborhoods. He cleaned up the neighborhoods on the theory that by paying attention to the small details, there would be a change in attitude – and crime would be reduced as pride was restored.

The theory was first introduced in 1982 in an article in the Atlantic Monthly by James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling. The Wikipedia article quotes the Atlantic Monthly article as follows:

Consider a building with a few broken windows. If the windows are not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows. Eventually, they may even break into the building, and if it’s unoccupied, perhaps become squatters or light fires inside.

Based on the article Broken organizational culture” (The broken windows theory also applies to organizational culture) there have been a lot of discussion in various LinkedIn groups. The many responses included rich and varied perspectives and opinions on organizational culture, its meaning and importance.

Below several distinctive views, illustrated by direct quotes from the LinkedIn discussion threads – unfortunately it was not possible to acknowledge everyone who made helpful contribution.

David Gunning

Another excellent article Torben this time covering the “broken window” theory. I have a lot of first hand experience of organizations choosing to ignore early signs of poor behavior that manifests itself later in senior leaders, or sees the organization itself brought into disrepute. My personal view – “take care of the small things the big things will take care of themselves”.

Andreas Nolte

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.

Matthew Pearce

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.

Neil Gatenby

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.

Trevor Freeman

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 behavior 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 behavior deviations doesn’t necessarily cure the problem.

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 behaviors 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.

Bernard Morris

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 behavior encouraged bad behavior outside of the accepted peer group influences. Social norms, i.e physical and sexual abuse, were accepted behavior 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.

Kirsten Oulton

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 behavior) 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.

Yves Dubois

Great read Torben. Very relevant in today’s world.

Peter Callender

Great article thanks Torben. Lots of organizations have lofty values statements … How many directors get feedback about how effectively they are living these values? So like broken windows, nothing happens when values are broken

Bernd K. Schmidt

There can also frequently being identified a broken window between the desired, published and propagated “corporate culture” of management and the real practiced “organizational culture” by people

Sherry Wilson

Nice read this morning. Thanks for sharing, Torben!. Good examples throughout this exchange too…that really drive home the careful attention needed to lead a great organizational culture.

Simon Gardner

Couldn’t agree more, leaders need to model the behaviors, lead by example and ensure the organist fixes the small stuff to deliver bigger societal change.

Nash Billimoria

Loved the quote about the culture being defined by the worst behavior the leader is willing to tolerate. Well said. Thanks for sharing!

Adam Salzer OAM

You raised the issue of what happens if bad behavior is not ‘called-out’?

Good culture and good behavior cannot exist if bad attitudes are not addressed – this is a tough call, but it is true

Thanks Torben, your article is provocative as it correctly portrays the need for holistic buy-in by all to the cultural norms of the organization – no compromise is acceptable.

Deon Aldridge

I remember a company implementing core values and one was “we leave No one stranded” then a staff member asked if this applied to the ladies toilet seat that was broken for 3 months. The CEO immediately personally went and bought and fitted one. The local manager who’s head slumped down at the meeting didn’t work there within a few months


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About The Author

Torben Rick

Experienced senior executive, both at a strategic and operational level, with strong track record in developing, driving and managing business improvement, development and change management. International experience from management positions in Denmark, Germany, Switzerland and United Kingdom

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The first broken window in an empty office block is a signal of a new acceptable standard of window conditions in that area. This is then repeated/adopted by the local population*. We must make sure all our behaviors match/demonstrate the values of our organization, and do not conflict with them. We must always remember Ralph’s warning, “What you do speaks so loudly, I cannot hear what you say,” Ralph Waldo Emerson. We must make sure that we not only walk the talk, but the physical items in your organization must match the talk.

*If the window is repaired immediately, and the unbroken standard is recreated, further window vandal – breakages do not occur.

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