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Definition

broken windows theory

What is the broken window theory?

Initially discussed in a 1982 article in The Atlantic by social scientists James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling, the theory suggests that maintaining and monitoring urban environments in a well-ordered condition might stop further vandalism and escalation into more serious crime.

Origins and explanation of the theory

The theory emerged from an analogy where a building with a few broken windows, left unrepaired, leads to more broken windows and eventually to more severe damage or unlawful occupation. This analogy extends to other forms of disorder, such as litter on a sidewalk, which tends to attract more litter. Over time, these seemingly minor issues escalate, leading to an increase in more serious offenses, like theft.

As a corollary to the theory, when an environment is well-tended and problems dealt with as they arise, this also affects attitudes and leads to continued good management and maintenance.

Application of broken windows theory

Broken windows theory can be applied to different settings, including urban and corporate environments.

Urban settings

In urban settings, proponents of the theory argue that small instances of disorder like graffiti, public drunkenness, and fare evasion, if unaddressed, create an environment that suggests neglect. This perception then fosters an atmosphere where criminal behavior feels more permissible.

Corporate settings

In a business context, broken windows theory is applied not only to elements of the physical workplace environment but any kind of outstanding issue that has not been promptly dealt with.

Problems like absenteeism, information silos, poor human resource management, overwork, burnout, oppressive or disconnected corporate cultures, and a lack of employee engagement can be considered analogous to a broken window.

Effective management that addresses these small problems promptly can prevent them from escalating and maintain a positive and productive corporate environment. This approach encourages continuous good management and maintenance of both physical and organizational standards.

workplace transformation tips diagram
Effective ways to address broken windows theory type problems -- such as absenteeism, overwork, burnout, etc. -- in a corporate environment.

Broader implications and criticisms

While the broken windows theory has been influential in various fields, including policing and urban policy, it has faced criticism. Critics argue that it may lead to policies that target minor offenses at the expense of addressing deeper social issues. Additionally, the implementation of such strategies can sometimes lead to community resentment or an infringement on civil liberties.

The broken windows theory provides a useful framework for understanding how small problems if ignored, can lead to larger issues within any environment, be it urban or organizational. However, maintaining high standards and addressing issues promptly can foster a sense of order and propriety that discourages further issues.

Whether applying this theory to city streets or corporate hallways, the fundamental takeaway remains: managing and repairing the small things in environments can prevent bigger problems in the future.

As businesses rush to adopt new technologies in the name of achieving a digital transformation, it's important to remember how important company culture is in this effort. Find out why digital transformation also encompasses culture.

This was last updated in April 2024

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