The Broken Window Theory and how Context defines Meaning and Motivation

Two Fish SwimmingTwo young fish were swimming in one direction when they happened to meet an older fish heading the other way. The older fish nods at them and says… “Morning boys. How’s the water?” The younger fish swim on for a bit and eventually one of them turns to the other and says… “What the hell is water?”  Even though this story told by award-winning novelist David Foster Wallace is all about ‘missing the obvious’ it also a salutary lesson about context and how it defines meaning. Fish are defined by their water environment. Without it they wouldn’t exist, but as the story goes, it is so pervasive in their lives that they remain blissfully unaware of it even though they exist only because of it. And so it is with people. We are who we are because of the context in which we find ourselves, and that can have a huge impact on the type of profiling assessments organisations use in recruitment, and why I believe it is wise to steer clear of ‘personality profiles.’

Based on my research, I believe it is wrong to assume that ‘personality profiling’ is an accurate indicator of performance. You may not have heard of the ‘Broken Windows’ theory, but it is an excellent example of how context defines meaning and motivation, and how its application during the 90s dramatically arrested the crime epidemic in New York City. Broken Windows TheoryBroken Windows was the brainchild of criminologists James Wilson and George Kelling. They both argued that the crime epidemic was the inevitable result of environmental disorder. For example, if a window is broken and left unrepaired, people walking by it every day in that community will conclude that no one cares and that therefore no one is in charge. Soon more windows will be broken sending a signal that anything goes leading to other ‘minor’ crimes such as aggressive begging, graffiti proliferation, minor misdemeanours and so on until there is a major breakdown in law and order. This theory says that crime is contagious and it starts with a broken window and spreads to an entire community.

In the early nineties when William Bratton, a disciple of the Broken Windows theory, was first appointed as the Transit Police Chief and charged with the responsibility of cleaning up the crime epidemic on the New York subways, he focused first on cleaning up the graffiti and the estimated 170,000 daily fare evaders rather than the more serious issues of violence confronting the subway system. Arrests for misdemeanours for the kind of minor offenses that went unnoticed in the past, went up fivefold between 1990 and 1994, and as a result the Transit Police began to turn around the experience of citizens being safe on the subway.

William BrattonAfter the election of Mayor Giuliani in 1994, Bratton was appointed head of the NYPD and he applied the same strategies to the city at large. He instructed his officers to crack down on the minor ‘quality of life’ crimes that bedevilled the city such as public drunkenness; public urination; littering; graffiti vandalism; aggressive window washing at intersections etc. and before long, crime in the city fell as quickly and as dramatically as it had on the subways. Even though Bratton and his likeminded peers were originally told to focus on the things that really mattered such as violent crimes and murders, they had the courage of their convictions and eventually their approach laid the foundation of the vibrant and relatively safe city that Manhattan is today.

I know this from first-hand experience because during the mid 90s when I was leading my World Best Practice Study Tours, our weekends in the USA were often spent in New York, and on many occasions I walked the streets of Manhattan after midnight feeling totally at ease and safe, plus I also took a few very late night rides on the subway and never felt intimidated by the experience. I can’t say that I would feel as safe walking around the streets of my own city, Melbourne after 10 pm on a Saturday night as I would in New York.

CAPS LogoI was so impressed by my personal experience that on subsequent study tours I led my groups of Australian executives to other police departments which had applied their own version of the NYPD strategy. In particular we undertook visits to the inner sanctum of the Chicago Police Department to study their Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy universally known as CAPS which has been recognized as one of the most ambitious and successful community policing initiatives in the USA.

So what is the point of these examples that I am sharing with you here? Well this week we have finally heard the details of the allegation that one of our most respected AFL football clubs had been running a programme of systematic testing of supplements on their team of elite footballers over the previous couple of years. An internal investigation by the club itself resulted in findings that were damning of the club’s governance in allowing a “pharmacologically experimental” environment (their words) to occur within its organisation.

SyringeThis regimen included weekly injections of multiple substances off-site from the football club without proper medical oversight from the club’s medical staff, all in the name of cutting edge ‘sports science.’ To compound the issue, the poor quality of record keeping and lack of proper protocol was such that it has been difficult for the authorities investigating the matter over the past six months to determine precisely what was given to whom over the period of time in question. The club leadership has since acknowledged officially that, “…(there were) mistakes in terms of governance and people management, and we apologise for them.” I definitely do not intend to comment any further on the pros and cons of what went on at that football club because I am sure that it has been well and truly ‘sliced and diced’ from every possible angle in the media this past six months since the story first broke. What has brought the whole sorry saga to a head, I believe, is the anonymous talk-back call from a concerned mother of one of the younger players involved, wrought with distress over the possible long term side-effects on the future health and well being of her son. After hearing her sobbing call on the radio late last week, I am sure no caring parent could avoid being moved by the genuine fear that these young men may be facing in the future with regard to their physical and emotional health, and the issue of workplace health and safety and informed consent that seemed to have been missed in the rush to gain a competitive edge on the field.

This brings me to the point of my blog – the amazing power that ‘context’ or environment holds over one’s individual motivation and how it could be that professional athletes at the peak of their careers would allow themselves to be experimented upon, week in week out, in clinics and locations away from the open and transparent environment of their football club. These are highly motivated young men spanning in age between late teens up to late twenties and early thirties and while some of them may be young and naive and at the beginning of their careers, others would have been around the professional football environment long enough and of a mature enough age to question in more detail what they were being subjected to. The reason why such highly professional athletes with highly tuned levels of motivation and self preservation would be prepared to subject themselves to being uninformed ‘guinea pigs’ in a climate of experimentation without due consideration given to their own health and safety tells a lot about the power of environment on individual motivation. Whatever It Takesi.e. “If all of my peers and fellow team mates are agreeing to this regime of weekly supplement injections, and if our coach whom we revere and  cohorts of his are leading the way in this experimentation to give us the edge on the football field then it must be okay for me. Besides – who am I to buck the team ethos of doing ‘Whatever it Takes’ to win the ultimate team prize – AFL Championship glory at the end of the season?”

If you or I were to be faced with the same decision to be injected with unknown (and in some cases unproven and highly experimental) substances on a weekly basis in order to improve our performance at work, I know what the answer would be. A big, fat, “You’ve got to be kidding me -  NO,”  I expect. And if we were pressed on the issue we would probably go running to the authorities screaming about the employer’s right to play ‘Big Brother’ and put us into this situation. In the cold hard light of day, I imagine that not one of those professional footballers would agree to such a preposterous idea, if indeed they were faced with the same request to give uninformed consent to their employer to experiment on them as an isolated individual. I assume that their motivation for self preservation would take precedence over their motivation to win at all costs.

This is the key to motivation in the workplace and why the profiling that I do focuses on motivation within the context of a given role and environment and not on the reliance that some organisations have on ‘personality profiles’ because that type of testing just doesn’t have validity. To assume that anyone would have the same motivation or behavioural style within all contexts is a fallacy. Current research says otherwise, and so does common sense in my opinion. Next time, as an employer, if you hear yourself saying, ‘why can’t we find motivated staff?’ or your recruitment people write those employment ads that ask for ‘motivated, self starters,’ you need to take a dose of the reality pill and ask yourself this question… “Motivated to do what and under what context?”

There is so much more I could write about this topic of motivation in the workplace, and certainly today our more enlightened leaders are learning the lessons about creating the right environment for people within their midst to flourish, rather than succumbing to the illusion that it is their job to lead from the front of the parade as if being a champion is all that it takes for others to follow. A colleague of mine, Anita Kropacsy, has been researching this topic of ‘Strength-Based Leadership’ where the creation of a values-driven environment that encourages creative people to channel their motivation towards doing meaningful work is the key to the sustainability of our companies of the future, and I must say, her discoveries on the essence of modern day leadership in this rapidly changing world  dovetails exactly with the work I have been doing on how to uncover and assess individual motivation in the workplace.

If all it takes is a heroic ‘champion’ leader leading from the front, then I would remind you of the saga currently facing the football club that I am referring to in this article. This is because the coach that has led this ill-advised lurch to the very edges of experimentation on its players is indeed a modern day, well respected ‘champion’ of the game and celebrated hero of the club whom I believe had reached almost mythical proportions in the eyes of some of his football playing peers – a recognised champion for whom winning was the only prize worth having I suspect, and whose point of view no one had the temerity or strength to override.  If the coach who was driving this programme of supplement experimentation was your average ‘Joe’ who didn’t come with the aura of success surrounding him, I wonder if all of the players would have fallen quite so quickly into line?

When it comes to motivation – everything is contextual, including the culture of leadership that is in play. We ignore this fact at our peril.

I would love to read your thoughts and comments here on this subject of motivation vs context.

Drop me an email to if you would like to discuss further how to create the right environment for your people so that their motivation is channelled in the most appropriate way for all concerned.

Until then… Let’s seek to understand more and judge less. Have a great week – Brian

Precision Profiling – What Makes You Tick? Through ‘Motivational Fingerprinting’ we uncover what you do, how you do it and why you do it, and most importantly, the hidden patterns that lead to your success, and that of your team.

About Brian Clark

Brian Clark is the principal director of Precision Profiling®.

He is a renowned practitioner, writer and speaker on building total customer cultures; values driven leadership and world best practice strategy and implementation.

He has been a guest lecturer on world best practice for the executive management programme at Monash University’s business college (Mt Eliza campus); an adviser to and key note speaker for the Singapore Productivity Association and a consultant to many major Australian and overseas corporations and government departments.

Read more about Brian Clark Here


  1. Leo Salazar says:

    Those of us who are focused on intercultural dynamics are very familiar with your arguments. Indeed: context is everything. What works or is appropriate in one context is anything but in a different context.

    It amazes me that so many in HR positions are still, to this day, enamored of psychometric testing, which presumes “objective” character and personality analysis with “scientific” accuracy. The only context these tests take into consideration is the testing environment. If you want to lead effectively, there are no scientific shortcuts. The only way to get to know your people is: get to know them. It’s a heavy time and people investment, but there is no substitute.

  2. Jon Pratlett says:

    Hi Brian,

    Agree. Context is critical and when it comes to key leadership authorities such as assigning tasks, I find many leaders are often very short on context. The consequences of this can be enormous from setting people up to fail; providing negative performance feedback off the back of having set the assignee up to fail, with the leader taking no responsibility for their own communication (The Meaning of My Communication is the Response I Get); rework; wasting resources; disengagement and the lack of opportunity for the assignee to effectively use any discretion they may have due to lack of context.

    Regarding profiling, I agree with many of the comments in this regard. On the positive side, I find profiles such as DISC, a fast and effective means of
    assisting people in appreciating that different styles I driven by different needs, and that doesn’t make people wrong, just different. Adjusting our communication to meet their style is key – “I like chocolate ice-cream, but when I go fishing I use worms as bait, because fish like worms).

    As I wrote in one of my weekly insights: Watch this brilliant 30 second video clip and then continue reading.
    When you look at the context from the two people’s perspectives they are obviously different. Sound like your workplace? You are assigned a task without the full picture. No matter how much you care it is easy to get it wrong due to the missing context, resulting in rework, hold-ups, increased cost and accidents.

    In the video there was little opportunity to communicate with each other. Giving context demands two way communication. If you don’t get it – ASK! Unclear? ASK!



  3. Valuable information. Lucky me I found your website unintentionally, and I am
    stunned why this coincidence didn’t took place in advance!

    I bookmarked it.

Speak Your Mind