In the early 1990s, a newly appointed head of the New York Police Department, William Bratton, was faced with peak-level crimes. Murders, thefts, burglaries and drug deals were not only common but, unlike in other big cities, spread widely throughout the city. The citizens, quite understandably, felt insecure.
Studying the situation, Bratton came up with a hypothesis: If we fix the visible but more minor offences on the streets – broken windows, graffiti, loitering, vandalism and the like – we could create an environment that discourages the more severe crime.
Bratton credited his hypothesis to the broken windows theory, introduced in 1982 in an article published in the Atlantic Monthly. In the article, James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling, two social scientists, state that "visible signs of crime, anti-social behaviour and civil disorder create an urban environment that encourages further crime and disorder, including serious crimes".
And that was precisely what was happening in New York at the time.
Soon after being appointed to his new role, Bratton decided to put the theory into practice. Although the initial reaction was mixed (being accused of zero-tolerance zealotry), the method seemed to work: The crime rates started to decrease significantly. By 2020, crime rates were down by some 75 % from the early 1990s. The change was considered so significant that in 1998, Bratton released a memoir called Turnaround, explaining his experiences in detail.
Although the broken windows theory has its roots in criminology, it can also be applied to everyday life. While we can't force anyone to cooperate, we have other tools. We can give responsibility, encourage habits and lead by example to create a positive, upward-spiralling effect known as the snowball effect.
Back in elementary school, we had rotating shifts to keep our classroom clean. Two people were assigned the weekly task. They were called "cleaners". After every lesson, the cleaners wiped the blackboard and arranged the items used during the lesson. With regular and organised cleaning, our classroom remained clean. However, the more significant impact came from a better focus, which resulted in better grades.
If you're a parent of small children, chances are you've struggled with cleaning up the house. To start a positive change, you can transform cleaning up into a game: Who collects the most toys will win. Kids immediately rush to collect their toys, trying to beat their siblings – and you. After a few times, your kids might begin to demand the cleaning game every night. And sooner than you realise, you're giving responsibility, making a habit and showing an example.
An office is no different. Although remote work is taking the world by storm, assigning a responsible cleaner every week is a viable way of giving responsibility. Another tool is for the management to lead by example: spending 30 minutes to clean up the office kitchen doesn't only show you're participating in the daily chores but also creates a clean environment, lifting the quality expectations higher.
The same principle applies beyond kitchens. The way parents talk to each other is the way kids learn to talk to other kids. The way new employees are welcomed is a signal of how people are treated. The way the work is organised is an indication of what level of organisation is expected.
We observe our surroundings for cues for how to act, especially when we're in a new environment. And the more our surroundings support specific behaviour, the more likely this behaviour is to happen elsewhere. As Martha Beck said, "How you do anything is how you do everything". By improving our environment, we improve the quality of our lives for ourselves, our families and our co-workers.
Next time you see a dirty kitchen, clean it up and enjoy the benefits.
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