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New Yorkers of a certain vintage will recall the controversial “broken window theory.”

A broken window signals a lack of care, and invites larger acts of bad behavior.   In the early 90s, the city focused on cleaning graffiti, prosecuting teenagers for jumping subway turnstiles, and other quality of life transgressions.

The jury’s out on whether this was the key to NYC’s transformation into one of the safest cities in the country.

But it makes sense. We see it in our personal lives:  the behavior we accept becomes part of our relationships.

Human behavior isn’t a bunch of isolated incidents; it all adds up to a greater whole.  At work, the cumulative result is our organization’s culture.

As leaders, we tend our cultures.  Mulch and water the flowers; pull up the weeds and compost them.  If a window is broken, fix it.

We do this by routinely offering performance feedback to our people, as part of a greater relationship.

Rather than admitting a mistake elsewhere in the organization, junior team member Luke* blamed an error on a 3rd party vendor.

After overhearing Luke on the phone with the client, Stacey called him on it.   Lying was an unacceptable violation of the integrity policy.   Luke had put a big name, big revenue relationship on the line.   She told him that if he lied at work again, his job would be on the line.

Stacey:

  • Identified the behavior.
  • Named potential results.
  • Expressed an expected change, and consequences for not meeting expectations.

And she talked to him right away when it was relevant, she didn’t save it for review time.   She did this to protect the organization, and to encourage Luke to choose a different solution in the future.

When people aren’t doing what’s needed at work, it’s like a broken window.   Leaders need to respond with action.   (Should Luke have been instantly fired?   That’s a topic that’s bigger than this blog post.   The answer:  “It depends.”)

Workplace “broken windows” should compel our action, but they’re not always as blatant as a lie.   Missed deadlines, the messy desk, or the person who texts through a meeting.  Team members who aren’t cooperating.

I’ve been participating as a beta user in a startup with an app where people can ask questions of either a trusted network, or the entire user community.

Here’s a question I asked:

You’re leading a project, and one of your team members isn’t delivering what’s needed for the team to succeed. What should you do?

A) Talk with them now. A stitch in time saves nine.

B) Wait, and save the conversation for review time. Karma will out.

Current results are running 87% for option A, and 13% for option B.   Interesting, if not statistically significant.

Fixing a real broken window falls outside of my current skill set.   Learning basic principles, and practicing, would be critical.

Occasions to offer feedback are opportunities to build your relationships, and your workplace community.

Feedback is best delivered face-to face.   It’s not always easy.  Practicing with a friendly peer or mentor is one way to become more comfortable offering feedback.   (Offering positive feedback is a lower pressure way practice!)

Offering feedback routinely, throughout the year, paves the way for a more effective performance review.   (Keeping simple notes when you offer feedback is also helps when the time comes to write the review.)

Knowledge@Wharton’s “Should Performance Reviews Be Fired?” summarizes some current thinking about performance reviews in corporate America.

The problem is not the performance review.  Problems arise when the review is treated as a transaction.

The best managers see that all work happens in relationships, in a greater community.    Fixing our metaphoric broken windows is one way to tend our workplace culture and relationships.

It’s work worth doing, and an essential leadership behavior.

Graffiti Tags, Corner of Chambers and Broadway, April 2011, all rights reserved.

*True story, names and details changed.