Tuesday, October 03, 2006

We've Got Windows to Break

Another thought from Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point. We've all seen abandoned warehouses with busted out windows. You may even have thrown a rock or two to try to break the remaining few panes. Why? What makes us willing to break a window on someone else's building. Gladwell calls it the broken window phenomenon.

If no windows are broken, it appears to us that someone cares about the building. We certainly wouldn't be the first to vandalize it. But, once a few windows are broken, and nobody comes to fix them, it appears to us that nobody cares. We somehow feel that we have permission to join in the window breaking fun.

I saw the same phenomenon in practice this weekend. I was driving to a local fair and the traffic was awful. We waited on the same straight stretch of road with cars as far as we could see. After forty minutes, one driver near the crest of the hill gave up, broke out of the line, and turned around. He had no more information than anyone else, he was just fed up with the wait. Within two minutes, four other cars did exactly the same thing. The rest of us moved up five cars and continued to wait.

The other four cars gave up because of the broken window phenomenon. They probably were grumbling about the wait, but they didn't want to look foolish to the rest of the anonymous drivers by being the first to get out of line. Once another driver took the lead, (oh, now you see why I'm talking about this) they were free to do so as well.

When someone else takes the lead, it suddenly becomes permissible, possibly even cool, to follow. Look into your own teams. What windows are they waiting for a leader to break so they have permission to join in the window breaking fun?

As a postscript, when we got about twenty-five yards from the fair entrance another car pulled out of line. Nobody followed it. There's a leadership lesson in that too.

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