This past week, NYC Mayor Adams announced a return to a policing effort referred to as “broken windows.” In the early 1980s, that phrase was introduced by social psychologists and criminologists as a way to enhance livability and reduce major crimes. The premise is:
“If a window in a building is broken and left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken. This is as true in nice neighborhoods as in rundown ones. One un-repaired broken window is a signal that no one cares, and so breaking more windows costs nothing.“
The idea has been expanded to include the importance of community attitudes. People care for and protect spaces that they feel invested in. Residents’ negligence of broken window-type decay signifies a lack of concern for their community. Malcolm Gladwell also refers to this theory with respect to New York City in his book, The Tipping Point.
So what does this have to do with legal practices? A similar phenomenon can occur in a cultural creep when an organization ignores or doesn’t address minor complaints. That initial lack of response can pave the way for the proliferation of “minor” mischief and worse and for workers of all stripes to feel that good behavior is not valued, that an emotional investment in their workplace might not be protected.
While studies point to the power of the initial premise, that an outside force, from the police or a nonprofit, that spruces up a community will help elevate it more permanently–locals start to take pride in better maintenance and outsiders sense the standard of behavior expected–the theory underlying “broken windows” can also be reversed: a community spirit dedicated to keeping windows repaired, not the repairs themselves, can reduce small and also greater crimes.
This is where workers who don’t have “broken windows” support from the top can still have an impact on their workplaces. Coming together to resist and denounce the kind of bad behavior that we all know occurs in the competitive environments of law firms can not only help repair the broken windows as they occur but also produce a community of invested workers who raise the overall culture.