I was once walking through a warehouse with a Plant Manager when we came upon a trashcan that was tipped over. The mess was minimal and seemed “clean” (i.e., nothing oozing, dripping, or soggy). I learned a lot about that Manager when he stepped over the debris and proceeded with our tour. Turns out, this “broken windows” act was reminiscent of his management style and the dismal culture within his team.
Broken Windows is a theory common in the study of criminological where addressing the small issues decreases the likelihood that they will escalate into bigger, more serious problems. For instance, according to the book Fixing Broken Windows, to prevent vandalism,
…repair the broken windows within a short time, say, a day or a week, and the tendency is that vandals are much less likely to break more windows or do further damage.
This is no different in the workplace. I’m reminded of a scene from the classic workplace movie Office Space. Two consultants, Bob and Bob, are reviewing all of the employees when they come upon the downtrodden Milton.
Bob #1: Yeah, we can't actually find a record of him being a current employee here. Bob #2: I looked into it more deeply and I found that apparently what happened is that he was laid off five years ago and no one ever told him, but through some kind of glitch in the payroll department, he still gets a paycheck. Bob #1: So we just went ahead and fixed the glitch. Vice President: Grrrreat. Manager: So, uh, Milton has been let go? Bob #1: Well, just a second there, professor. We, uh, we fixed the glitch. So he won't be receiving a paycheck anymore, so it'll just work itself out naturally. Bob #2: We always like to avoid confrontation, whenever possible. Problem is solved from your end.
This is an extreme example where an employee was not informed of the ‘minor’ detail that he was terminated five years ago, but Bob and Bob’s resolution is even worse. Instead of explaining the situation to Milton, they choose the path of least resistance (and most damage) by not telling him anything. To a lesser extent, leaders ignore these broken windows all the time.
After an employee makes a minor error do you immediately address it or do you wait for him to make an even bigger mistake? When someone misses a deadline, do you reinforce the importance of timelines or do you minimalize it with a passive-aggressive joke. Many of the performance problems that lead to a tarnished reputation or even termination could have been avoided if they had been dealt with head on, in the moment.
As leaders, we do not have the option of putting our heads in the sand. We cannot pretend that we do not see a broken window because it’s inconvenient or awkward. It’s our job to tackle the complex issues before they become complex. By addressing the small issues today, you will have less big problems tomorrow. With less wide-scale emergencies to dominate the day, Bob and Bob enjoy listing to Michael Bolton music. What will you do with your free time?