16 Jan 2020 17:58 IST

Lessons from the broken windows theory

The essence of the concept is that large-scale chaos begins by neglecting small issues

In 1982, James Q Wilson and George L Kelling introduced a now famous ‘broken windows’ theory in policing and criminology. This example gave the theory its title:

“Consider a building with a few broken windows. If the windows are not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows. Eventually, they may even break into the building, and if it’s unoccupied, perhaps become squatters or light fires inside.

Or consider a pavement. Some litter accumulates. Soon, more litter accumulates. Eventually, people even start leaving bags of refuse from take-out restaurants there or even break into cars.”

The essence of the theory is that large-scale chaos or disorder begins with the neglect of small issues or problems. The tolerance of small deviations eventually creates an environment for large violations that destroys the culture of civility and law.

The theory applies to many areas in life, and is particularly true for us — aspiring leaders. Let’s look at a few of those areas.

The broken windows in relationships

Relationships don’t break; they fray. Imagine a leader who has just taken over a large team. He asks his team to show up at office every day at 9 am sharp. Come Monday, he shows up at 9.05. First window. He promises everyone that when a stiff target is achieved, they get to celebrate at the new restaurant. When the team hits the target, he orders in pizza. Second window. Slowly trust is eroded, incident-by-incident, exception-by-exception and soon a culture of distrust is formed. He loses credibility. He loses the licence to lead. He still has the title, but he has lost the right.

A leader knows that her team will read her leadership in the little acts that show whether she is willing to walk the talk, or allow exceptions that reflect she does not really care. Relationships with team members, with customers, with other stakeholders are all built on trust, on openness, on honesty. Each little act in the opposite direction leads to a trust-deficit and a breakdown in the relationship. That is what happened in the Mistry vs Tata break-up. Small issues allowed to fester, grew to assume giant proportions, which made reconciliation and repair impossible. But if attention was paid when the first issue surfaced, and all sides came together in a committed way to resolve it, then perhaps they could have given the relationship a longer runway.

The public display of disapproval by the founder-shareholders of Infosys is a classic broken-windows-in-action situation. One decision, that is perceived as not aligned with shareholder interests, is left untended. Soon another pops up and very soon both sides are talking about battles and wars and break ups.

The leader must pay special attention to broken windows in relationships. They are the bedrock of her leadership. She needs to be aware of when a window is broken and take immediate action to repair it. A quick call, a meeting over coffee, an apology email or note — whatever is most appropriate must be initiated. But quickly, before the second window breaks.

The broken window in values

The movie Chariots of Fire, tells the real-life story of two British athletes who competed in the 1924 Olympics — Eric Liddell, a devout Scottish Christian and Harold Abrahams, a Jew. Their rivalry and friendship run through the movie. When they board the boat to Paris for the Olympics, Liddell learns that the heats for his 100m event is on a Sunday and his religious convictions forbid him from running on the Sabbath. Despite pressure from the Olympic committee and even the Prince of Wales, all of whom question his patriotism, he stands firm in his belief. Eventually things work out well, when a fellow runner who had already won a medal, gives him a shot at the 400m event, which he goes on to win. A 2016 movie — Hacksaw Ridge — highlights the same integrity in ‘not making one exception’ when it comes to values and beliefs. The hero, Desmond Doss, a conscientious objector, refuses to carry a gun but still insists on serving his country as a medic in the army. He is ridiculed and even called a coward. Eventually he is awarded the Medal of Honour for bravery when he saves 75 lives in the face of enemy fire.

Value systems are very sensitive to broken windows. Everyone agrees that it’s not right to use office resources for personal use. So, sure I should not be using the office photocopying machine to make a copy of a 500-page textbook for someone at home? But what if it was only 10 pages that I needed to photocopy, what if it was 1? Would that make it right? Within that ‘just 1’ lies the illusion that a small violation is okay, and I can still hold true to the principle. The reality is that the first broken window, soon leads to the second; before we know it a principle of conviction has become a ‘principle’ of convenience.

The broken window in systems and habits

A system IS its consistency — without that it has no life, no power, no impact. A conference call, a review schedule, filing a report, responding to a customer complaint, setting a quality standard — all rely on being done right every time. A leader who cancels a scheduled review conference call or skips attending one, immediately conveys to his team, that it isn’t that important. One miss soon becomes two and the process quickly collapses. A start-up begins with resolutions of providing a premium quality experience to its customers, but a small drop in quality is ignored and soon what began as a trickle of complaints becomes a flood.

On my return to India after a few years, I was amazed at the standard of service, cleanliness and hygiene on some of the new inter-city private bus services. One of them quickly became my favourite — the sheets on their sleeper services were spotlessly clean, their drivers and attendants courteous, their schedules almost always ran on time. Then on one trip, I noticed a sheet that had not been cleaned, on the next trip it was faulty air-conditioning, on a third a three-hour delay. Soon, I stopped using their services. When I recently logged on to check how they were doing, it was sad to find customer ratings down from the 5 stars to 2 and complaints of ‘bed bugs’. A great service had become a bad service by ignoring broken windows.

The lesson is simple — fix the first broken window. Don’t allow it to stay on the façade of your leadership with the justification that ‘this is just once’ or ‘this is so small’. The legend of the little Dutch boy who put his finger in the small hole in the dyke to save his town, shows that he had the right idea on broken windows. He knew that a small leak could explode into a big one and lead to the bursting of the dam. As leaders, we need to emulate his example.