Please learn from our mistakes

No-bullshit lessons in business and careers. One mail every day. 15k+ readers love it. Join in?

Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
29 May

Broken windows and slippery slopes

In the mid-1970s, the state of New Jersey in the USA announced a ‘Safe and Clean Neighborhoods Program’ to improve the quality of community life in 28 cities.

As part of that program, the state provided money to help cities take police officers out of their patrol cars and assign them to patrol on foot in the streets. The reason being that the officials believed that foot patrol would cut the crime rate in these areas.

But the police chiefs disagreed. They were against the idea, simply because it was hard work and kept them outside on cold, rainy nights. But they eventually went along with it.

Fast-forward to five years later, the state published an evaluation of the foot patrol project. And what they found was something very expected and surprising at the same time:

The foot patrol had NOT reduced crime rates.

The residents of these foot-patrolled neighborhoods, however, seemed to feel more secure. They tended to believe that crime had actually reduced, and took fewer steps to protect themselves from crime, for e.g., staying at home with the doors locked.

Moreover, citizens in the foot patrol areas had a more favorable opinion of the police than those living elsewhere.

And officers patrolling on foot had higher morale, greater job satisfaction, and a more favorable attitude toward citizens in their neighborhoods than did officers assigned to patrol cars.

But how could the neighborhood be “safer” when the crime rate hadn't gone down?

Because not only are citizens afraid of violent crime, but they are also afraid of being bothered by disorderly people who are not necessarily criminals, like drunks, addicts, rowdy teenagers, pranksters, loiterers, and the mentally disturbed.

What foot patrol officers did was to elevate the level of public order in these neighborhoods and prevented unruly behavior from these folks.

And most importantly, they added to the perception that law and order were being enforced and the neighborhoods were being cared about.

The lesson: Apathy leads to disorder.

Social psychologists and police officers tend to agree that if a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken.


One unrepaired broken window is a signal that no one cares, and so breaking more windows costs nothing.

Untended property becomes fair game for people out for fun or plunder, and vandalism goes up once communal barriers like civility and decency are lowered by actions that signal "no one cares."

Disorder is a slippery slope. An orderly neighborhood can turn into an inhospitable jungle in a matter of a few months. Small mischief, if not nipped in the bud, will give way to violent crime and muggings. And if many residents think that crime is on the rise, they will use the streets less often. And when on the streets, they will move quietly with averted eyes and hurried steps.

"Keep walking, don't get involved."

What is this trivia doing in a business and management newsletter?

Organizations also go through the same slippery slope of apathy if managers do not signal that they care.

In his book ‘12 Principles For Effective Management’, author Luca Dellanna talks about the 4 primary reasons why employees lose motivation at companies.

1. Expecting a reward but not getting it

When your employee thinks she did a good job, she expects the good work to be acknowledged and recognized in some way. It can be a simple thank you, it can be a small note of appreciation for a job well done, it can be something more tangible like a raise.

But if she doesn't get any, she will learn the lesson that in her work environment, results aren't rewarded. She will adapt by losing motivation. And this loss of motivation will quickly osmote across the team.

By praise, I mean specific praise. General praise is vague and is often rejected. But specific praise highlighting what she did well is welcomed and can act as good feedback for her growth.

What matters is not whether she did a good job, but whether she thinks she did — just like what mattered for the residents of the neighborhood wasn't the actual crime rates dropping, but the perception that they did. This perception of order and care, in itself, is a huge motivator and a virtuous loop.

2. Expecting reprimand but not getting it

If your employee thinks she failed your expectations, she secretly expects you to point it out. She expects you as the manager to tell her that her performance wasn't up to standard. If this doesn't happen, she will learn the lesson that in her work environment, low performance is okay. She will adapt by decreasing her future performance.

Again, lack of care and apathy lead to a vicious cycle of decreasing performance and more disorder.

3. Expecting someone else to get rewarded or reprimanded, but it doesn't happen

When your employee thinks that a team member did an excellent job (or a terrible one), she expects you to call it out. If it doesn't happen, again the employee will learn the lesson that in her work environment, performance doesn't matter. She will adapt by lowering her efforts and caring less.

4. Expecting a project to evolve into something, but it doesn't happen

If your employee is working hard on a company initiative and is fully invested in the project, she expects it to bear results for the company and herself. Perhaps, she expects her role in the project or in the company to grow in importance.

If this doesn't happen, for example, the company "changed its priorities" or halts projects because they "weren't working out," she will learn the lesson that in her work environment, it is not worth spending time and energy on new initiatives.


Management, first and foremost, is about signalling care for the people working with you, and then figuring out how to align the business' goals with their personal incentives, strengths, and likings.

If my manager doesn't care, it will be hard for me to care either.

Feeling Lucky?
Subscribe to get new posts emailed to you, daily. No spam.
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
15k+ business professionals act on our advice every day. You should too.
Subscribe to get new posts emailed to you, daily. No spam.
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
15k+ business professionals act on our advice every day. You should too.