The Broken Window Theory and Leadership

By | December 9, 2013

[December 09, 2013]  The idea of this theory is that by paying attention to and correcting small problems, many bigger problems will be prevented.  Specifically, if small problems are not dealt with in a determined and timely manner, more serious problems will be tolerated and grow. 

The “broken window theory” was an idea first put forth by criminologists1.  Their basic logic that when petty crimes (like graffiti, purse snatching, and broken windows) are not addressed, then more serious crime will be also tolerated.  The failure to address these smaller crimes, sends a message to everyone is that communal barriers are lowered and thus no one cares and no one is watching. 

While not comprehensive, some common examples of organization broken windows:

  • not listening to customers
  • employee mediocrity
  • dirty and disorganized work place
  • toxic or bad employees 

By correcting small problems, the theory makes two claims: that further less serious problems will be deterred and that major problems will be prevented as a result. 

Also suggested is that the time and resources consumed in taking care of minor problems is small, especially in comparison to working to resolve a larger problem2.  The point here for leaders is not complicated or difficult.  If leaders only focus their efforts on the major and important matters, neglecting minor issues, then their organization is on a slow path to failure. 

The application of the theory for leaders is straight forward.  Fix problems right and do so quickly.  Create an organizational culture that empowers all employees to be personally involved in the situation. 


[1] The broken windows theory by social scientists James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling, was introduced in an article titled “Broken Windows” and which appeared in the March 1982 edition of The Atlantic Monthly.  The title comes from the following example: 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. 

[2]  Broken Windows, Broken Business: How the Smallest Remedies Reap the Biggest Rewards by Michael Levine



Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article everyday on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.