Broken windows and the workplace

By John Langhorne / Guest Editorial

Over the past year, we have been hearing more about a community policing approach known as “broken windows,” which posits that preventing small crimes helps to create an atmosphere of order and lawfulness, eliminating more serious crimes. The criminologists who first proposed this theory based their recommendations on a 1969 study by social psychologist Philip Zimbardo.

Zimbardo arranged for an automobile with no license plates and the hood up to be parked idle in a Bronx neighborhood and a second automobile in the same condition to be set up in a Palo Alto, California, suburb. The car in the Bronx was attacked within minutes of its abandonment.

He noted that the first to arrive was a family – a father, mother and a young son – who removed the radiator and battery. Within 24 hours, everything of value had been stripped from the vehicle. After that, the car’s windows were smashed in and children began using the car as a playground.

Meanwhile, the vehicle in Palo Alto sat untouched for more than a week. Zimbardo himself eventually went up to the vehicle and deliberately smashed it with a sledgehammer. Soon after, people joined in the destruction. Zimbardo observed that majority of the adult “vandals” in both cases were primarily well-dressed, clean-cut and respectable whites.

His study shows that social context can be altered by small changes that heavily influence how people behave. It also illustrates the little-researched idea that human behavior, absent conscious action, seemingly drifts to less effective actions.

This is a good pump primer to begin a discussion of morality and ethics, an ancient topic debated throughout the centuries. First, let us begin with a definition: Morality is antecedent to ethics – it denotes those concrete activities of which ethics is the science. It may be defined as human conduct, insofar as it is freely subordinated to the ideal of what is right and fitting.

Over the past 30 years of consulting, my observation is that a major reason for managerial failure is unethical behavior. One only need pick up a copy of the New York Times or Wall Street Journal to get some idea of the scope of the issue. Many societies fail to function because of corruption – witness Brazil’s current turmoil.

In general, managers fail for four major reasons: misuse of power, inappropriate emotional behavior, the escalation of commitment and the diffusion of authority.

Micromanagement is one of the top concerns voiced about managers at all levels. Managing people in any organization is an exercise in the wise use of power. Managers can help people succeed or make them fail, and they are the largest source of stress in the workplace. Collectively, the behavior of managers is the largest contributor to what we call morale and drives how people think, feel and act on the job. It has become clear that managers who believe in open communication and practice some form of employee engagement are well respected, whereas those who are top-down seldom get sparkling reviews.

Stress makes people stupid. We know from many years of studies that levels of stress that are either too low (boredom) or too high have very negative effects on performance. In the contemporary workplace, we see few examples of low levels of stress, but more than enough of excessive stress. Much of this is imposed by managers with little or no understanding of the effects of their behavior on people around them.

Some of these behaviors include sarcasm, not listening and/or ignoring, sniping, punishing “all for one,” breaking confidence, asking for input when the decision has been made, asking for input on trivial decisions, not explaining why, writing a policy to solve a problem and coming to meetings late. Since the advent of email, instances of email misuse now abound, such as using “reply all” in inappropriate ways. All of these behaviors are about misuse of power or emotional manipulation.

The escalation of commitment is an unethical behavior that is seen most often in executives. This occurs when a person or team makes a bad decision and rather than acknowledging the mistake and reversing or correcting it, keeps pouring more resources into trying to make it work. The outcome of this over-investment of ego in a failing idea is often catastrophic for an organization.

The fourth reason for managerial failure is diffusion of responsibility. The 19th century political philosopher Edmund Burke stated, “All that is necessary for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing.”

Many managers fail because they will not accept responsibility for corporate decisions and divert blame onto senior management. These managers do not believe that they have an obligation to support corporate decisions, and will undermine and ridicule decisions with which they personally disagree. When widely practiced, such behavior builds enormous mistrust in employees and leads to chaos. The failure of people to accept responsibility can lead to terrible consequences.




John Langhorne is owner and principal of Langhorne Associates His most recent book, “Beyond IQ: Practical Steps To Find the Best You,” is available digitally at Amazon.