Imagine you’re driving down the road and everyone is cruising at a consistent 10 miles-per-hour above the speed limit. Many of us would join the flow of traffic and break the speed limit as well.

Then one person decides to drive 20 over the speed limit. It doesn’t seem like much to you because it’s only 10 faster than you. Some people even choose to go above that, risking their own life and that of other people on the road.

What do we think when one of those people causes a wreck?

In life, we often let small things slide because of their minimal effect on the big picture. It’s only when a large event occurs that we decide to make drastic changes, if even then.

Consider a different example: doing the dishes. One dirty plate in the sink often doesn’t merit washing the dishes. Then we add another dish, let’s say a dirty bowl, and the net change seems negligible.

That neglect to notice can lead to a sink full of dirty dishes, and if you’re in my house, it is going to lead to an argument.

And so, while I’m washing these dishes, let’s talk about how this works with something more serious.

The Broken Windows Theory

The broken windows theory traces its roots back to 1969 and Stanford University psychologist Philip Zimbardo, just prior to his popularized Stanford prison experiment.

He set up two cars, one in a high-crime area of New York City and one in an affluent Palo Alto neighborhood.

Almost immediately in the NYC neighborhood, the car, which was left with the hood up and no license plates, was stripped for parts and vandalized. In Palo Alto, Zimbardo hit the car with a sledge hammer to show signs of destruction. This quickly led to the car’s dismantling and destruction.

Taking this idea further, two criminologists published an article on how Zimbardo’s work can be expanded into an entire community and its members’ view of crime.

They reasoned, in short, that if a single broken window exists, there is essentially no harm. But the presence of many broken windows can invite further crime, which inevitably leads to worse crimes. The underlying idea is that when experiencing neglect in some form, we tend to actively contribute to its ruin.

For anyone who thinks this sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because it was one of the headliners of Rudy Giuliani’s mayoral term of the 1990s. Unfortunately for the minorities of New York City, the broken windows idea was not properly initiated or limited, leading to a push for more.

The well-known, bastardized version of broken windows was named “Stop and Frisk”, which was deemed unconstitutional. Where broken windows dealt with smaller crimes to prevent larger crimes, “stop and frisk” took this an unwarranted step forward to stop anyone who looked suspicious.

The administration, in essence, was playing Minority Report, except instead of having pre cognitive humans, they granted police permission to guess.

To say the absolute least, this left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth for the theory. A lack of planning and a poor execution gave way to terrible results.

But when we take several (read: many) steps back and combine the broken windows idea with mountains of self-awareness, clear boundaries, and a healthy dose of hindsight, we might find a usable theory for leadership.

Application to Leadership

When we look at what leadership is, we consider qualities like empathy, accountability, being appreciative, and being a great listener. We look to someone who is fair and doesn’t ignore the details just because they’re details.

It is in the details where we find the necessary need for fairness and equality, and where the broken windows theory can bring positive results.

I once worked at a company that had some pretty relaxed rules on people coming in late and leaving early. In some organizations, the entry and exit times of employees can be flexible to a degree, but we had clients coming in that relied on specific hours for people to be present.

Imagine going to Target when they open at 8am and they just decide to open at 8:30am because the employees don’t care. For us, punctuality was necessary.

Eventually, the manager created a time sheet (these are salaried employees, mind you) and made everyone fill it out. She said, “You don’t have to put 9-5 every day, but whatever time you put down, you better be here.” It was a clear message: If you can’t be relied upon to honor your word, you can’t work here.

We had to realize that it may have been five minutes here and there, but at the end of a month, people get comfortable enough to risk 10 minutes.

If you keep going, it’s perhaps insane to think anyone would show up 30 minutes late to work, but if they’re used to showing up 25 minutes late usually, an extra five doesn’t really matter, does it? In fact, it does.

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Many people respond to details with that timeless expression, “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” This is great when thinking about the stresses of life that are outside of our control; can’t go around worrying about every little thing or you might give yourself a heart attack.

However, leaders must realize that much of that “small stuff” is well-within their control.

When we look at huge scandals, like the Wells Fargo fiasco of 2016, we can usually identify a step-by-step progression. An entire department did not go into the meeting room one day and say, “Hey, let’s screw millions of people over and open accounts in their name and charge them fake fees!”

While some people are resigned to think that narrative, it is much more likely that one person felt the sweltering pressure to open accounts and decided to make quota with a fake account.

Once the dam has a leak, it is just a small step for each person to chip away at it and say, “Oh, it’s just a little change.”

Eventually, an entire department, and organization at large, is being scrutinized by a Senate committee.

Leaders at other organizations look at this scandal and say one of two things and, in some cases, both. It’s either “We would never do that” or “How can we prevent that here?”.

As a leader, you can focus on trying to keep windows from getting broken. But be cautious with this strategy, as it can lead to unwarranted actions based on individual biases.

Perhaps a new strategy should be focused on creating various structures to find the broken windows and then fix them.

The Structures

These structures will help your team to take care of the necessary details, while feeling that they are being treated fairly in the process.

Additionally, taking the initiative to fix something often requires the power to do so.

A leader should include the entire team when creating these structures because they ultimately affect the very way everyone will perform their various functions and work together.

1. Positive Assumptions

Create a structure that assumes people aren’t looking to break windows at every turn. Rules and restrictions should be worded to assume that your employees want a cohesive and functionally collaborative culture.

Instead of saying, “Don’t be late”, try “be on time”, and follow it up with a reason such as being respectful of other people’s time.

When we assume people mean well and want to fix broken windows, not actually break them, we create a culture of trust. Combined with the structure of communication, employees feel their needs can be taken care of and will be treated in positive uniformity.

2. Communication

Create a structure where communication operates outside the hierarchy of the organization. What this means is that anyone should be able to talk to anyone. Pixar created such a structure when its project managers felt like communication police after finishing Toy Story.

If someone sees something being neglected but doesn’t feel like they can talk directly to the person responsible for it, they can fall into the escalation cycle. They may decide to let other things, more important things, go awry as well.

By opening communication, leaders trust individual team members to fix a broken window as a team without needing to bring it to the leader first.

3. Authority

Create a structure that grants each individual the permissions necessary to find and fix the problems of the organization. The Ritz-Carlton grants each of its employees a daily allowance to take care of just such issues.

While this allowance is geared towards the external relationship between the business and its clients, the authority structure grants trust to employees to use their own judgments.

With this authority, whether internal or external, employees feel they can not only call out a problem but carry out the required remedies. Where positive assumptions give employees the benefit of the doubt and communication gives them the freedom to engage each other, authority gives them the license to act.

Take care to always ask yourself why you’re implementing a certain structure and to continue assessing all your structures as time goes on.

The broken windows theory isn’t perfect, but with flexibility and persistence, a leader can work to improve their organization with each iteration of the theory’s application.

How Can Leaders Handle the Small Stuff?

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Philip Clark
Philip Clark is a former business consultant who currently writes about leadership psychology and development, aiming to improve the world one person at a time. After studying psychology and business at the College of William & Mary, he offers insight into looking past a standard checklist life by digging into what makes you tick and then improving it.