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What Managers Can Learn from the New York Police


Did you know that in 1992 in New York City, there were 2154 murders and 626,182 serious crimes? But then something unexpected happened: the crime rate began to turn. Within 5 years the murder rate had dropped by 64.3% and serious crime by 50%. A pretty good result for an area that was argued to be too big, too unruly, too diverse, and too broke to manage. So what happened?

To start with, the NYCPD realized that, clearly, their strategy wasn't working, they needed to do something differently. So they implemented a strategy which is often referred to as the “broken windows theory”.

This approach looks at how little things and small behaviours can make a big difference. Under the broken windows theory, an ordered and clean environment – one which is maintained – sends out the signal that the area is monitored and that criminal behaviour will not be tolerated. Conversely, a disordered environment – one which is not maintained (broken windows, graffiti, excessive litter) – sends the signal that the area is not monitored and that one can engage in criminal behaviour with little risk of detection.

This story made me think of employee engagement…. Firstly often companies keep doing the same things, rolling out the same strategy and then wonder why they get the same results: disengagement of at best little improvement in engagement. Employee engagement can also sometimes feel “too big, too unruly, too diverse, and too expensive to manage.” You can apply the “broken windows” theory to engagement to help it to feel less overwhelming. What are the little things that can be done to make a difference? What are the small behaviours that everyone can get involved with that will make it feel better to work in your organization? This approach can take an intangible idea, such as employee engagement, and break it down into small tangible actions.

My book, Employee Engagement, is packed full of ideas to help you approach employee engagement in a different way. One of the ways you can achieve this is to use what we call a strength based approach to employee engagement, which means you start by asking questions about what good looks like and what has worked in the past. The book contains case studies to help bring this approach to life and a number of practical tools you can use to do just this.

The book also contains a great case study featuring a “broken windows” approach to engagement. This approach was used with the not-for-profit company Elexon. We worked with a small group of champions to identify the small behaviours that needed to change. The group identified that a good place to start was to get people talking more. They worked out how they would behave differently if they were to role model “talking more”: they made a point to say hello to colleagues when they arrived each morning; they had lunch with colleagues in the communal areas each day; they elected not to send emails to some people and to walk over to their desks and speak to them; they set up a whiteboard in the communal area and posed a weekly question and encouraged colleagues to gather around the question and talk about it. Metaphorically, they mended the windows, got rid of the graffiti and picked up the litter… After just two weeks the group were amazed at just how different it felt to work there.

And once these small behaviours began to gather momentum we worked with the business on other activities such as running a series of leader workshops, introducing an engagement toolkit and new communications channels, and the introduction of a flexible working approach and culture.

The results speak for themselves:

  • Employee morale trebled (it increased by 51%in 12 months, from 23% to 74%)
  • Positivity about working for Elexon increased by 20%, from 55% before the programme to 75% after
  • The proportion of employees recommending the company as a great place to work DOUBLED (it increased by 37%, from 36% before the programme to 73% afterwards)


If you’re interested in reading about more case studies like these and finding out how employee engagement can transform your business, then make sure you check out Employee Engagement.