Broken Windows

The broken windows theory originated in criminology.  It was based on the norm-setting and signalling effect of urban disorder and vandalism on additional crime and anti-social behaviour.  So in other words, if minor crimes are seen as being allowable, this sets a new norm.  With this baseline set, the leap to more significant crimes is not so great.  The theory states that maintaining and monitoring urban environments to prevent small crimes such as vandalism, public drinking and parking violations helps to create an atmosphere of order and lawfulness, thereby preventing more serious crimes from happening.  This theory was first introduced by James Wilson and George Kelling in 1982.  They went on further to state that the presence of social disorder creates fear in the minds of residents.  As such they come to believe that they live in an unsafe environment.  This results in their retreat from public areas and thereby removing or weakening the social controls that previously prevented crime.  Even the most brazen minor criminal is usually deterred by the presence of witnesses.  Once this process begins, it rapidly spirals into chaos and disorder.

This post is about leadership and behavioural science in the workplace, so where are the parallels?  Well, these were drawn a good while ago, particularly in the world of health of safety.  If you operate a facility and fail to take care of the basic maintenance tasks such as window cleaning, clearing gutters and replacing out of date signage, then you have set the norm for behaviour on site.  You have also shortened the leap required to perform seriously unsafe behaviours.

In these times of austerity many managers are required to deliver savings.

The obvious areas for cuts are the ‘non-essential’ elements within the budget.  However, before you cut cleaning hours, decrease the frequency of painting & decorating and tarmac over the grassed areas to save on gardening, think about the longer term costs you may be introducing.  Accidents and incidents in the workplace lead to lost production, compensation costs, increased insurance, absenteeism and lost reputation.  All of these carry a far more significant cost than mowing the lawns.  Maintaining your asset to a high standard sets a norm for behavioural standards that results in a safer, more productive workplace where high quality is the standard output.  This norm will be at a level where the leap to unsafe, corner cutting behaviours will be too great for most people to consider.  Given the costs involved, this represents amazing value for money.

So if you have been asked to make savings, look at your costs of sickness, overtime and incident investigation.  Reductions here are achievable and will have a positive impact on your team.  Before ripping into your office budget, take a moment to balance how little you will save by cancelling the office plants and doing away with free tea and coffee against the negative impact that this will have on quality and productivity.

This theory doesn’t only relate to your permanent team members, by creating a positive, clean, well maintained workplace you immediately establish a behavioural norm for visiting contractors.  So not only is the safety, productivity and quality of your own workforce improved, you will also see this improvement in the work of your visiting contractors.  The value of this is immeasurable, but even so, it far outweighs the cost of carpet cleaning and clearing the gutters.  So next time you ask someone to board up a window in a store room to keep out the weather, think about the true cost of not repairing that broken window.


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