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Why Fixing Minor Workplace Issues Matters: Broken Windows Theory

Greg de la Cruz works in the tech industry and is the author of two published titles on Amazon.

A woman stares through a broken window. Broken window theory is a popular idea in addressing crime, and it can also be applied in the workplace.

A woman stares through a broken window. Broken window theory is a popular idea in addressing crime, and it can also be applied in the workplace.

What Is Broken Windows Theory?

Broken windows theory gained mainstream attention when author Malcolm Gladwell spotlighted this concept in his book The Tipping Point, a book that spent over eight years on the New York Times bestseller list and grossed over 3 million copies in sales. But while Gladwell’s penultimate work was published in 2000, broken windows theory as a concept has existed since 1982, when the article that introduced it entitled Broken Windows was published by the magazine The Atlantic.

Broken windows theory, in simple terms, holds that if a building has one of its windows broken—and this shattered window is left unrepaired for some time—it is likely for the other windows of that building to get shattered as well. And that the reason behind the proliferation of "broken windows" is that such a setting is tolerated by the building owners or management or whoever’s in charge.

Broken windows theory was used by law enforcement to address the horrid crime rate of New York in the 1980s—fixing an unsafe subway system plagued by graffiti vandals, toll skippers, and other petty criminals.

“If a window is broken and left unrepaired,” Gladwell writes in The Tipping Point, “people walking by will conclude that no one cares and no one is in charge. Soon, more windows will be broken, and the sense of anarchy will spread from the building to the street on which it faces, sending a signal that anything goes.”

This concept has been widely applied in fixing crime, and there are good reasons why it might be useful in fixing broken workplaces.

Unchecked "Minor" Issues in the Workplace Can Drive Employees Away

In some organizations, workplace issues that seem trivial are swept under the rug, as dealing with them would have you believe it wouldn’t be a productive use of your time.

Torben Rick, who wrote the article Broken Organizational Culture in 2016, argues that the implications of the broken windows theory for the business world are profound. “What would happen,” Rick asks, “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,” he adds, “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.”

Small yet unchecked and undesirable behavior in the workplace can lead to serious consequences in the long term.

“Similar to those fearful residents,” Rick compares, “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.”

Applying broken windows theory to the workplace, it’s logical for employees to seek out an environment that doesn’t take the little things that matter for granted.

Ejecting "Broken" People: A Controversial Approach

Are incompetent, poor-performing workers akin to being the broken windows of a company’s workforce?

This is just one of the many questions Michael Levine attempts to answer in his book Broken Windows, Broken Business. Levine argues that the worst broken windows are often broken people.

Leigh Buchanan, describing Levine’s book in the HBR article Sweat the Small Stuff says that “customers who are ill-treated by a poorly-trained associate, or employees working side by side with someone clearly incompetent, surmise that the business doesn’t respect them.”

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Levine argues that this perceived lack of respect that either the customer or employee feels stems from the company’s failure to “repair” or “replace” its broken employees.

“Levine recommends,” Buchanan continues, “that managers eject poor performers as quickly as possible, letting everyone affected know that the problem has been dealt with. That may prove unpopular among some employees in the short run, but in time they will appreciate the improved environment.”

The HBR article written by Buchanan, as well as the book by Levine, were written more than 15 years ago, and since then, organizations have emphasized the importance of having their employees abide by their code of conduct. The level of strictness may not be equal among workplaces, but it’s clear that many workplaces today have zero-to-little tolerance for either bad behavior or poor performance.

Five Suggestions to Fix "Broken Windows" in the Workplace

Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point tells us that New York’s crime rate didn’t significantly drop overnight—it took three years to "clean up" the city’s subway system. In like manner, don’t expect your organization to change its ways overnight. Small, simple, doable steps must be taken by your company’s leaders to alter the company’s perception with both customers and employees. As such, here are five suggestions to fix the broken windows in your workplace:

  1. Make sure employees know how to use internal reporting systems
  2. Protect employees from retaliation when they report issues
  3. Identify a "micro-intervention"
  4. Establish a broken windows policing system
  5. Manage through change

1. Ensure Employees Know How to Use Internal Reporting Systems

Knowing how to use internal reporting systems is crucial in fixing broken windows, because unless an employee knows how to bring an issue forward with his manager or with someone with authority, those issues often fail to see the light of day.

And in some cases, when there’s nothing wrong with the employee—but instead, it’s the reporting mechanism that needs to be addressed—employees who fear for their own reputation bypass the internal reporting system and resort to directly reporting the issue externally.

In some of the worst corporate disasters over the past two decades—whistleblowers from Enron (Sherron Watkins, who initially raised the red flag internally), WorldCom (Cynthia Cooper, who let management know of major accounting problems), and Lehman Brothers (Matthew Lee who brought forward problems with the management team) attempted to report broken windows with management first, but evidently, it wasn’t enough for them to do so as the issues eventually found their way to the press.

2. Protect Employees From Retaliation When They Report Issues

If employees are not protected from retaliation inside the company’s walls, then they will likely seek help from the outside even if it means risking their own reputation or career. Psychological safety in workplaces is not only important for creating a work environment that encourages open discussion, but it’s also key in encouraging employees to speak up when they see a gaping hole.

The great failure of Theranos teaches us that employees who speak up should be properly heard and protected from retaliation—otherwise those employees, especially when they’re conscientious, will either inform the press or will report the problem to government authorities, like when Erika Cheung the ‘heroine’ of the Theranos scandal sent an 1,800-word letter to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

The complaint she lodged with the government agency ultimately resulted in the company’s downfall, as it was no longer able to conduct the core part of its business operations, which was performing blood tests on its labs.

If the miniseries The Dropout portrayed events with much accuracy, Erika Cheung, who was a relatively new employee, was punished and threatened by management before she was faced with the challenging decision to report her findings to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

3. Identify a "Micro-Intervention"

In an article he wrote for Forbes in 2019, Phil Lewis suggests organizations try "micro-interventions."

“If the small problems in a business do predict the big ones,” Lewis says, “then the task becomes to identify where the most important correlations might exist, and start testing the impact of micro-interventions on organizational performance.”

Phil Lewis elaborates his point by breaking it down into four steps:

  1. Look across your organization and identify a major problem you need to solve. Ensure that it relates to resilience, responsiveness, and innovation—not financial performance, which is a net result of these characteristics.
  2. Write down as many hypotheses as possible in terms of small ways that this problem presents in your organization.
  3. Identify against each hypothesis a micro-intervention, which is a simple change that you can run over for a few weeks.
  4. Measure the before-and-after impact, ideally in collaboration with a data scientist of a business intelligence unit.

These micro-interventions are a proactive way of scouring your organization for broken windows, or they may be ways to prevent any breakage by seeing windows with cracks on them—issues that are about to "tip" and could damage your company’s reputation.

4. Establish a Broken Windows Policing System

Once you have an internal reporting system that works, and when employees feel like they can raise an issue with leadership and not be punished for it, then you can confidently establish a broken windows policing system.

Similar to how Toyota popularized through the Lean methodology in halting the production line whenever a defect was detected, your organization should know how to gather everyone’s attention whenever there’s a glaring issue that needs to be addressed and corrected.

When there’s an acknowledgement coming from upper management that there is a problem with something, trust is being built, and this openness by the company’s leaders encourages more openness down the management line.

“Accountability is not simply taking the blame when something goes wrong,” says Peter Brigman, who wrote the 2016 HBR article The Right Way to Hold People Accountable. “Accountability is about delivering on a commitment. It’s responsibility to an outcome, not just a set of tasks. It’s taking initiative with thoughtful, strategic follow-through.”

When your company’s leaders follow through with their commitment to fixing even the smallest of issues, they’re truly more accountable, and this is how a broken windows policing system can succeed.

5. Manage Through Change

It’s one thing to fix all of those broken windows in your organization once a radical new face is in charge, but it’s another thing to maintain the system once that person leaves.

Your organization needs to know how to manage through change; otherwise, it will never be able to establish a reputation with customers, employees, and, quite crucially, investors—that it is a company that knows the importance of fixing small issues before they become big problems.

Maintenance is the difficult part of applying the broken windows theory, whether it’s dealing with crime or when it’s applied to workplaces. Because people come and go in organizations—and when Rudy Giuliani left the mayoralty in 2001, it was unclear whether broken windows policing would continue in New York City to keep crime rates down.

From 2015–2019, when Bill de Blasio was mayor of New York, there was a second great crime decline. But surprisingly, this was when broken windows as an enforcement style fell out of favor due to the death of Eric Garner, who was choked to death by police after being targeted for selling loose cigarettes.

Since then, New York and most of the democratic world don’t appreciate broken windows theory as much as when it was popular in the '90s—but this is an important reminder that sentiments change all the time, so leaders must be able to manage through these changes.

Starting Small Is Key to Changing Big

In order to repair or replace all of the broken windows in your organization, you need to focus on fixing one broken window at a time. It can be tempting to aggressively change the organization’s perception, such as fast-tracking the exit of undesirable leaders, overhauling company policies, and re-writing the code of conduct in its entirety.

But your leaders need to understand that starting small is the key to changing big. Your leaders need to be patient and understand that the tiny, measured steps they are taking will lead to the outcomes they are seeking.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Greg de la Cruz

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