In police work, there is a “broken windows” theory. This theory holds that if minor crimes like broken windows on a building are ignored and left alone, it will foster an environment where worse crimes will occur in places where there are several broken windows. A neighborhood that has several buildings with broken windows is sending the message that they’ve stopped caring about the community and will do little to turn it around and make it presentable. By addressing seemingly minor issues like broken windows or litter, the deterioration of a community can be slowed or reversed, and more serious crimes are less likely to occur in the community.
Some of the general ideas of the broken windows theory can be applied to leadership. How many times have you been employed at a workplace where the culture allows a significant amount of leeway, to a point? Places where behaviors were overlooked (at least for a while) but there was a fine line, which when crossed, resulted in disciplinary action? I worked for a security firm in the early 2000s, and we were provided internet access with our computers. Some of the guards had never held a professional job prior, so they ran away with this perk. They loved being paid to surf the internet. The supervisors allowed it to go on, because there were more urgent matters that required their attention, and as long as nothing bad happened, they couldn’t show it was negatively impacting the quality of work. That changed when a vice president approached a guard who was surfing the net, and the guard ignored the vice president for over a minute before looking up from his web browser. The hammer came down after that, as all internet access for the guards was cut off.
It could have been worse. The guards might have missed systemic stealing of goods from loading docks, they might have missed cars being broken into, or any number of crimes due to being distracted. Some guards came to resent other guards who spent too much time surfing, and they would tire of thanklessly picking up the slack. The lack of restrictions regarding one minor thing – web surfing – could have had much larger effects on the team’s chemistry and on their performance than it did.
Leaders will want to pay attention to the “broken windows” in their work environment. Proactively addressing problems when they are small, before they become larger problems, is efficient. This behavior fits in with the Style Approach of leadership. The Style Approach “focuses on what leaders do and how they act” (World Campus, L5, p4). When leaders initiate this kind of structure, which is often vastly different from how many workplaces focus on reacting to big issues, the leader can help change the culture from a reactive mode to a proactive mode. This can affect workers’ outlook towards their tasks as well as build trust amongst workers.
Basically, leaders should fix problems when they are small. Leaders shouldn’t wait for a small fire to turn into a far-reaching wildfire that devastates an entire team. I’m not advocating micromanagement, but a leader should be aware of what’s going on in the team and fix the broken windows. Taking care of the little things creates a work environment and culture that is creative and professional. When workers don’t have to worry about the broken windows, they can concentrate on what they need to do to succeed.
Pennsylvania State University World Campus. (2013). Lesson 5: Style and Situational Approaches. Retrieved from https://courses.worldcampus.psu.edu/fa13/psych485/002/content/05_lesson/printlesson.html