Leadership Advisory, Executive Mentor, HR Strategist, Culture Change, Wellness 

Driving cultural change? Focus on the little things.


I remember many years ago reading Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘Tipping Point’ and being fascinated by the story about the graffiti and fare-evading on the trains in New York City in the mid ‘80s, as a tipping points for violent crime[1]. As the story goes, every night the trains would be sprayed with graffiti and fare evasion was so widespread that the transit authority was losing as much as $150 million in revenue annually. The trains were trashed and in disrepair, perpetually late because of persistent track damage, and about 15,000 felonies occurred on the system every year. In the middle of that decade, a new Subway Director was brought onboard to oversee the multi-billion dollar rebuilding of the subway system. He was advised not to worry about the graffiti, but to instead concentrate on the macro issues like reducing crime and improving system reliability. The new director was a proponent of the ‘Broken Windows Theory’, put forth by criminologists James Wilson and George Kelling, which posits that if a window is broken and left unrepaired, people walking by will conclude that broken windows are the new normal. Soon more windows will become broken and a sense of anarchy will spread.[2]

He knew that the easiest way to solve the macro problems, was to focus on fixing the ‘broken windows’. So he focused instead on the ‘smaller problems’ of graffiti and fare evasion. Under his leadership, every night the graffiti was painted over and fare evaders were caught and made an example of. This zero tolerance approach to the ‘little things’ that degraded the subway experience, started the transformation of New York City into what it is today. City pride returned when people saw that someone cared about improvement and that someone was in charge. Both petty and violent crime declined as a result and citizens became more involved in protecting the city. It ceased to be a management problem, and became more of a collective effort. His focus on quick wins sent a powerful message, showing people how much better things could be and inspiring them to help lift the standard.

Back in Australia and in the wake of the Royal Commission into Banking, the banks are busily underway reviewing their controls, systems and processes to ensure their workforces deliver the highest ethical standards going forward. But too much control can stifle innovation, initiative and proactivity so this needs to be managed delicately. The regulators now possess enhanced powers around culture, so this is an interesting juxtaposition for financial services.

Arguably, the fastest and most effective way to tackle the macro issues identified in the Hayne Report is to tackle the ‘broken windows’ – the small infractions and slippages in standards that seem inconsequential in the face of the larger challenges (and which can sometimes be invisible), but which can fast track the cultural change. These minor infractions can hardly seem worth worrying about, but they can compound over time and inadvertently send a message that no one is in charge and no one cares. This in turn can lead to a decline in standards and behaviour. Whenever this occurs in a company, it’s time to refocus the leaders on the little things. Leaders, particularly new leaders, often underestimate the impact they have and the influence their little day to day micro decisions can have on the bigger organisational ecosystem. The decision to tolerate or turn a blind eye to something minor, can have larger consequences down the line. Conversely, the decision to pick up a concerning behaviour or questionable action when it is small, sends a message to everyone that the expected standard is nothing less than exemplary. That in itself is inspiring.

Whenever there is any concerning behaviour in an organisation – from poor quality work and unethical behaviour, to even bullying and negative politics – it almost always could have been avoided if the leaders had managed it when it was small. Unethical behaviour takes a significant toll on organisations by damaging reputations, harming employee morale, and increasing regulatory costs – not to mention the wider damage to societies overall trust in business.[3]

When faced with the need for macro change such as improving risk management, delivering consistently high ethical standards, and rebuilding customer trust, it’s also too big to just leave it to the leaders. Organisations need all their employees playing a role to lift the standards. Malcolm Gladwell states that crime is contagious, just as a fashion trend is contagious[4]. Slipping standards in organisations can also be contagious. When people see others doing it and nobody noticing, it sends a similar message that no one cares and it doesn’t matter. Just as in the New York City example, if people can get away with the little infractions, then it’s more likely a bigger breach will occur. The challenge for large companies is that it is very difficult to catch every minor infraction. The opportunity is to build the pride so that the system self-regulates.

This sounds difficult but it is surprisingly simple. Most employees want to do the right thing and will emulate the behaviour of those they respect and admire. For the highest ethical standards to become part of the DNA, everyone needs to make it their business to identify and fix the ‘broken windows’ and leaders can drive this through a focus on the little things. Having a culture that supports everyone doing the right thing at the right time, even when no one is watching, is a high priority. Just as no person is perfect, we cannot expect a company to be perfect but we can engineer the culture to value doing the right thing. And when we achieve this, the results are powerful.

As a leader, some questions for you to consider:

  1. Where are the ‘broken windows’ in your organisation? What minor infractions have you been missing?
  2. What ‘little things’ could you start to manage more tightly in order to lift the standards?
  3. What are you tolerating that you should probably make an example of?
  4. Are there behaviours that you’re inadvertently role modelling that might be working against a culture of ethical behaviour?
  5. How could you inspire your teams to lift the standards on the little things?

[1] Gladwell, M. (2000). The tipping point: How little things can make a big difference. Boston: Little, Brown.

[2] Gladwell, M. (2000). The tipping point: How little things can make a big difference. Boston: Little, Brown.

[3] Epley, N., & Kumar, A. (2019, May/June). How to Design an Ethical Organisation. Harvard Business Review.

[4] Gladwell, M. (2000). The tipping point: How little things can make a big difference. Boston: Little, Brown.