Apply the “Broken-Windows” Theory to Management?

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The mere appearance of disorder encourages a deeper form of disorder, regardless of “root causesâ€. Learning this lesson, police now apply the “broken-windows†theory to community policing. Parents have learned that too when it comes to raising their children – a bad precedent can make it difficult to enforce rules. We should also apply the approach to management.


In 1982 George Kelling, a criminologist and James Q Wilson, a political scientist, wrote an essay for the Atlantic Monthly titled â€Broken-Widowsâ€. Its basic thesis is that “disorder and crime are usually inextricably linked, in a development sequence: if one broken window wasn’t replaced, it wouldn’t be long before other windows were broken too. Why? Because, “one unrepaired broken window is a signal that no one cares, and breaking more windows costs nothing.â€


Their insight was based on a social science experiment conducted in 1969 by Dr. Phil Zimbardo, Stanford Social Psychologist, who grew up in the Bronx, and as a colleague of Stan Milgram another leading social psychologist. (Note, Dr. Milgram was one of my teachers in my PhD program.) Dr. Zimbardo parked a car on a street in the Bronx with the hood up and license plates removed. It sat for several days like that. He then smashed a window. Soon after others did so too, and in hours the car was turned upside down and destroyed. In Stanford, a similar car was also parked – and within 24 hours, someone closed the hood.


Recently, Bret Stephens published a foreign policy book, America in Retreat, and posed the question as to whether there is a “broken windows’ cure not just for America’s mean streets, but for our increasingly disorderly world. Recognizing that America cannot be the world’s policeman, he asks whether we can separate out our core interests and allies from those who aren’t and then questions whether sharply punishing severe violations of geopolitical norms, such as the use of chemical weapons and gross violations of national borders, would stop continued actions by these states. In other words, such a foreign policy emphasis would be on short, mission-specific punitive police actions. It would not be on open-ended occupations with the goal of redeeming broken societies – a “root cause†exercise which clearly failed in Iraq and would fail in other countries.


Managers often are lax in remedying disorderly behaviors in their companies. Examples range from minor, such as people coming late to meetings with no excuses, to more substantial issues, like mistreating co-workers and stealing company resources. It seems likely that being aware of the “broken-windows†approach – the need to enforce core values and norms when violated – and then doing so, will generate less disorder and distraction by company leaders from directing successful execution of strategy and culture.


What do you think? Share examples with us of the value and limits of applying this theory.