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broken window theory

Broken window theory is the concept that each problem that goes unattended in a given environment affects people's attitude toward that environment and leads to more problems.

As a corollary to the theory, when an environment is well-tended and problems dealt with as they arise, that also affects attitudes and leads to continued good management and maintenance. The theory first appeared in a 1982 article ("Broken Windows") in The Atlantic by two social scientists, James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling. Here's how the authors explain the phenomenon:

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.

Or consider a pavement. Some litter accumulates. Soon, more litter accumulates. Eventually, people even start leaving bags of refuse from take-out restaurants there or even break into cars.

In a business context, broken window 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 each be considered analagous to a  broken window.

This was last updated in September 2015

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