Developing Your Talent

Are “Broken Windows” Threatening Your Organization?

By Steve Harrison on May 15, 2013

Does your organization suffer from “broken windows” syndrome? The theory of “broken windows,” introduced in a 1982 article by criminologists James Q. Wilson and George Kelling (based on a study by social psychologist Philip Zimbardo), offers the following premise: The perception of disorder in a neighborhood – represented by broken windows, graffiti, trash in the street, etc. – produces fear in law-abiding citizens and acts as a magnet to criminal activity. Therefore, maintaining the physical appearance of a neighborhood is critical to its viability. The theory was credited as instrumental in the clean-up of NYC in the 90s and is largely responsible for the resurgence of urban foot patrol policing policies today.

While the sociological theory has since been challenged by some as overly simplistic, the basic tenet of the theory still has merit and offers interesting implications for America’s organizations. As I discuss in my book The Manager’s Book of Decencies: How Small Gestures Can Build Great Companies, small courtesies – an inviting reception area accompanied by a friendly greeting, clean restrooms, carefully maintained landscaping – can have a large impact. Being mindful of details is a demonstration of the respect the organization has for its employees, and employees who feel valued are more likely to pass that care on to their customers. On the other hand, employees treated disrespectfully will often respond in kind.

Tolerating an organizational environment of carelessness, disarray or disorder suggests a lack of social control and will make it more acceptable for employees to cut corners on compliance issues, use office resources for personal business, treat colleagues and customers poorly, abuse trust, etc. And once the social fabric of the organization has begun to unravel, it can – just like the urban neighborhood – quickly fall apart. To maintain a culture of ethics, be mindful of the details.


Steve Harrison is a long-time management and corporate culture innovator. He is the author of “The Manager’s Book of Decencies: How Small Gestures Can Build Great Companies.” This is the fourth in an eight-part series from Steve addressing a philosophy of doing business that goes beyond the transfer of goods and services. It calls for a transfer of values known as small decencies. Steve is co-founder and Chairman of Lee Hecht Harrison and former chief ethics and compliance officer of Adecco Group.

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