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Walking by issues

THULE AIR BASE, Greenland -- One of the most difficult obstacles an Air Force leader will encounter, regardless of whether they are a new or well-seasoned leader, an NCO or a commissioned officer, is engaging with members not meeting standards.

Not meeting standards has such a broad spectrum, from being as minor as hair not in regulation or boots not bloused in a professional manner, to destructive work place behaviors such as sexual harassment. As a leader you have the opportunity to walk by, justifying the infraction by saying "it's not that bad," or "I just don't want to degrade the morale of the organization." However, leaders that choose to walk by infractions are accepting the introduction of unprofessionalism in the workplace and creating an environment for it to grow.

In the early 1980s a social theory was introduced by two social scientists by the names of James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling. This theory was called "The Broken Windows Theory" and is still studied today by many sociologists and criminologists. This study can be generally linked to the problem of walking by issues. Essentially, the theory presents a building with a few broken windows within any town. If the windows are not repaired, the tendency is for the criminal element of vandals to break a few more windows. Eventually, they may even break into the building, and if it's unoccupied, perhaps become squatters or take up other levels of mischief.

If we are accepting of an environment of lesser infractions such as subpar dress and appearance standards, we are accepting a building with broken windows within our town. These minor infractions will start to become instituted as the normal social acceptance within an organization, and will later become larger issues such as unprofessional work place behaviors. We are simply standing by, waiting to see what our building with broken windows grows to be.

A successful strategy for preventing this social change is to fix the problems when they are small. Repair the "broken windows" or in our case, the minor infractions, on the spot or within an appropriate period of time, and the tendency is the organization's members are much less likely to break more standards or do further damage. Corrections do not need to be a public spectacle -- Airmen will talk amongst themselves. However, leaders should never publicly walk by trash or a mess without picking it up. These actions will be noticed within the organization and members will potentially take it upon themselves to improve their work areas. Enforcement is not only for the top tier of leadership to handle, in the military setting, the senior NCOs should set the enlisted standard and ensure the junior NCOs are properly setting and enforcing this standard among their Airmen. The same goes for officers -- commanders should ensure the junior officers are involved with enforcing the standards and not walking by.

Enforcing the standards is a way of life in the military. Leaders should never walk by an issue and fear they are rocking the boat or disturbing morale. A social environment of professionalism will be generated by saying something and correcting the issues while they are still minor in nature.