– Thoughts on Strategy and Management

Broken Windows Theory: Broken windows and graffiti give the perception that nobody cares

The Broken Windows Theory – how not to attract the best employees

The Broken Windows Theory originates in law enforcement. It aims at reducing crime rates. This is not the typical source of ideas for corporate management, isn’t it?
Actually, businesses can learn a lot from the successful implantation of this theory in the public sector. It can be transferred to many disciplines of management. Attracting and recruiting the best talent is one of them.

A recent post at the Strategy+Business blog reminded me that I had planned a post about the Broken Windows syndrome for a long time. I am convinced that a public community that tolerates minor crimes and petty offences has much in common with businesses that tolerate minor lapses in the behavior of their managers and employees.

The Broken Windows theory explained

Let’s start with a bit of an explanation. I take the liberty to copy the description of the Broken Windows syndrome from the above-mentioned article. I surely couldn’t say it better:

“The broken windows theory was first popularized in a highly influential 1982 Atlantic Monthly article written by Harvard political scientist James Q. Wilson and Rutgers criminologist George L. Kelling. Citing a range of academic studies, they argued that the routine vandalism that had become pervasive … should be viewed as not just as a consequence but also a cause of more serious felonies. In a nutshell, the authors showed how letting minor trespasses against order and civility, such as graffiti or vandalized windows, go unaddressed created the perception that disorder was the norm in those neighborhoods. Moreover, they made the case that vandals were not just kids blowing off steam but in many cases were also habitual criminals who committed serious crimes. The authors therefore proposed increasing arrests for petty offenses as a first step toward restoring a sense of order — and stopping potential felons as well.”

My very short summary of these ideas is:

If you don’t address minor lapses, you show everybody that you don’t care. You accept this kind of bad behavior and don’t mind if it becomes the norm. This shows everybody what you value and what you don’t value.

My even shorter Summary:

By allowing minor lapses, you show everybody that you don’t care.

Broken Windows Theory: Broken windows and graffiti give the perception that nobody cares

Broken windows and graffiti – they don’t care

Why the the Broken Windows theory is relevant for businesses

This principle is general enough to apply to communities and businesses likewise. The S+B article draws parallels to corporate culture and

“the routine acceptance of organizational petty crimes — habitual lateness, the mild abuse of corporate credit cards, undercutting team members … (which) … can send a signal that more serious ethical transgressions will be tolerated.”

In a similar way, Michale Levine writes in his book Broken Windows, Broken Business:

“The broken windows theory is all about the unmistakable power of perception, about what people see and the conclusions they draw from it. … In business, perception is even more critical. The way a customer (or potential customer) perceives your business is a crucial element in your success or faleure.”

Implications of the Broken Windows theory for recruiting

The first business analogy for the Broken Windows Syndrome that immediately came to my mind was recruiting. It is common sense that in times of a “war for talent” – the ability to attract the best people has become a critical success factor:

  • We live in the era of knowledge workers.
  • “Whatever we know today is depreciating in value at an increasing rate.” (quote from John Hagel III in this article).
  • Aging societies make the problem even worse.

What if a business makes the best candidates turn away before they sign a contract because they show that they don’t care?

I have applied for enough jobs to remember some “minor lapses” that made me turn away:

  • I have written countless job applications for which I did not even get a rejection. If a business does not react to my application and my repeated follow-up efforts, I will eventually delete it from my mental list of acceptable employers.
    That told me: Maybe they care for the people they invite for a job interview. But they certainly don’t care for the people that do not fit this job (thus ignoring that these people might be the perfect fit for some other vacancy they would have in the future).They won’t get another chance from me for a very long time.
  • For one job interview my potential future line manager was about 20 minutes late. I had a two-hour journey and had made it in time. I was told that he was in an urgent call with some business partner.
    That told me: They don’t care very much for me or for their employees. Business is more important than people.I found myself in an empty meeting room and the first thing I saw were the used coffee mugs from some earlier meeting.
    That told me: They really don’t care what I think about them. Moreover, they don’t care for a neat and tidy work environment. Who knows what else they are not caring about?Since I had time and was bored, I started to look around. On a flip board, I could read the hand-written notes from some earlier meeting. Now I knew a bit about one of their customers.
    That told me: They don’t even care for the confidentiality of their customers.After the job interview, we mutually agreed that we would not fit together.
  • In another job interview process, I was asked to prepare a presentation and hold it in front of the whole team. I agreed since this was a great opportunity for me to get to know the people I would work with. Unfortunately, nobody had told the team that I would be there for my presentation on a Friday afternoon (again, after a two-hour drive). They finally managed to gather some people from other departments to fill the room. At least, those people pretended to be interested in my topic. My potential direct superior, in contrast, spent the whole presentation typing on his Blackberry beneath the table top.That told me: This person does not care for his people. Another company offered me a job the Monday after. They had shown much more interest in me and I spent ten interesting years with them.

All of these incidents were only minor lapses. Yes, busy managers can be late for a job interview. An assistant may have forgotten to tell the team about presentation. These things can happen. However, as long as there are businesses that better manage their job interview processes, these lapses convey a clear message: We don’t care that much for what you think about us.

Do you think that businesses still can afford such an attitude?

As a summary, I once again refer to the S+B article:

“That’s the essence of the broken windows theory: It teaches us to pay attention to small signals of cultural decay.”

Our book recommendations on the Broken Windows theory:

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