Managing Conflict

Managing Conflict
What Happens if We Do Nothing?

In an influential 1982 Atlantic Monthly Article criminologists James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling put forth a ground-breaking proposition in what they called the “Broken Windows” theory.  In this thought-provoking investigation grounded in social psychology research the authors provide insights into common issues of in everyday life.  The brilliance of their idea is revealed in its simplicity that reveals the complexity of human interactions in a social setting.

According to Wilson and Kelling petty criminal behavior leads to more disorderly behavior.  Wilson and Kelling write that “social psychologists and police officers tend to agree that if a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken.”  Why? Because the message sent to the petty criminal (and other criminals) is the owner of the building and the people of the community around it don’t care if windows are broken.  The lack of action delivers loudly the message of “do as you please because nobody cares.”

Wilson and Kelling’s findings suggest that a broken window left untended in a community will lead to deterioration of an orderly environment.  The window, once broken, sends a signal to those in the community.   It signals that a disregard for other people’s property is accepted by the members of the community.

This basic premise—that a broken window—can lead to much larger problems is reinforced in many other areas of life.  In the world of team sports inattention to small interpersonal infractions is likely to lead to a need for much more attention down the road to serious problems that are likely to arise if the initial infraction is not dealt with.  Broken Windows theory suggests that minor infractions, violations of team norms, and breaches of interpersonal expectations, left unchecked will lead student-athletes to conclude it’s okay to behave this way.

Like the petty criminal who realizes that negative consequences won’t result from his actions, a team member whose transgression towards another goes unchecked is almost certain to move on to progressively more serious infractions.  And the underlying message to the rest of the team’s members is that such a behavior is okay.

When does a rift in relationship become a broken window?

Several years ago while I was conducting a series of leadership classes with a high school basketball team a concerned student-athlete admitted that a rift between him and another player the previous season cost his team a state championship.

During an exercise grounded in authentic conversation the athlete admitted that at a crucial point in a semi-final basketball game he willingly made a choice not to pass the ball to the team’s leading scorer in position to win the game.  Character flaw?  Not really. What emerged from his confession revealed a deep-rooted problem that arose early in the season.

As his story unfolded, the confessant athlete and a teammate—the one he did not pass the ball to—had an altercation in the locker room after practice several weeks into the season.  No coaches in sight.  Just players.  The two players and their teammates decided to do nothing to resolve the disagreement and differences that led to the altercation.

The non-response to this incident sent a signal to the team’s members that mending relationships was not important, that no one cared enough intervene and reconcile a damaged relationship.  And just as Wilson and Kelling’s Broken Windows theory predicts, the damaged relationship left unchecked escalated the transgressions toward one another.

What began as a disagreement, a rift if you will, evolved to the point where it divided the locker room with players aligning with one player or the other.  Sides were chosen silently, no one really understanding the forces at work.

Could the rift have been mended thereby allowing the team to grow in its cohesiveness?  Yes, but no one recognized it for what it was—a broken window that if left unattended would likely lead to the deterioration of an orderly environment.

Broken windows in the team environment take shape in the form of missed commitments, disagreements, relational dilemmas, violations of trust and deceptive actions.  They can also result from inadvertent actions and unintended consequences.  However they happen, they must be tended to swiftly.

To simply assume that such problems will correct themselves through a natural course is often the path to larger relational problems.  Negative consequences of untended broken windows will leave student-athletes angry, frustrated, and fragmented.  Broken windows have a tendency to disrupt team relations and alter the cohesion of a team.  Broken windows theory informs us that the interpersonal bonds that hold a team together can be affected as much by what doesn’t happen as what does happen.


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