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Saboteurs are everywhere. They undermine every business by stirring confusion, slowing production and sapping morale. These saboteurs aren’t enemy infiltrators. They’re ordinary, well-intentioned staffers who unwittingly convert everyday activities into acts of sabotage.
They don’t know it, but they’re following a strategy that the US Office of Strategic Services (OSS) outlined in 1944’s Simple Sabotage Field Manual. The OSS – precursor of the CIA – prepared the manual to help members of the European resistance undermine the Axis war effort. One section “General Interference with Organizations and Production” suggested that resistance fighters could sabotage enemy institutions simply by pushing everyday office behaviors to an extreme.
“Where there are people working together, and where new organizational forms take place and technology advances, there will always be accidental, unwitting sabotage.”
For instance, “Talk as frequently as possible and at great length.” A skilled saboteur could bog meetings down for hours with meandering orations. The enemy might feel bored and frustrated, but folks at a meeting would have a hard time identifying such behavior as sabotage.
Even model employees can easily, unconsciously become saboteurs. The manual cites simple, almost universal behaviors that become dangerous only when someone magnifies them. Even then, you might dismiss them as mere “irritants.” But when these irritants multiply and become pervasive, they also become increasingly destructive.
“Rooting out…corrosive behaviors isn’t so simple, since they are often mutant excesses of laudable aspects of organizational life and group behavior.”
If you study the OSS spymasters’ eight destructive tactics – along with one more belonging to the digital age – you can identify these behaviors and enact effective countermeasures:
1. “Sabotage by Obedience”
The OSS’s first tactic is to do everything through the proper “channels.” You can create all kinds of mischief by scrupulously following every rule precisely, even when using your judgment better serves the firm. For instance, a retail business might institute a rule that buyers can’t purchase items with margins below a certain percentage. But what if a buyer finds a thin-margin item that he or she knows will pull in customers who would purchase wider-margin goods as well?
“The addition of just a few committee members can turn a small, effective, nimble, invested team into a lumbering, indecisive, distant group of overseers.”
Scrutinize your processes to find outdated or overly rigid guidelines. Cultivate a culture that celebrates innovation and independent thinking, and that avoids punishing people for making mistakes. Ask employees to submit examples of responsible rule breaking and publicly acknowledge their independent behavior as an achievement. “Rehabilitate” saboteurs by assigning them to tasks that require independent judgment. Reinforce and reward behavior that recognizes that a risk is not the same as a threat. Teach your team members that occasional failures are part of learning.
2. “Sabotage by Speech”
Long, meandering speeches – particularly at meetings – can choke decision making, hinder productivity, sow confusion and breed mistakes. Modern workplaces harbor six types of speech saboteurs. Look out for the:
“Experience suggests an inverse relationship between the number of people involved and the ability to make a decision.”
- “Long talker” – This excessive explainer likes to make speeches, even in reply to “yes-or-no” questions, droning on to clarify an answer or to support it with a lengthy anecdote.
- “Tangent talker” – This chatterbox steers every discussion off into a new direction that has little relevance to the main topic.
- “Lost talker” – This wandering soul meanders without ever getting to the point, confusing and overwhelming listeners.
- “Sensitive talker” – This saboteur seeks to appeal to different listeners’ learning styles by saying the same thing over and over in different ways.
- “‘Oh! Oh!’ talker” – This excited co-worker is like the elementary-school kid who knows the answer to every question and waves his or her hand wildly. At best, this excessive enthusiasm can be useful, because the person has extensive knowledge. But the behavior can veer into sabotage when the talker feels the need to add to every topic.
- “Jargonista” – Talkers who laden their message with inside argot are usually experts with useful information to share, but they obscure their message with technical terms.
Curtail speech saboteurs by modifying your meeting protocols. Set a time length for each meeting and designate a “timekeeper” with the authority to rein in speakers who go on too long. Invite only those who need to attend. Establish a clear agenda and inform participants about it before the meeting. If anyone veers off on tangents, steer them back to the agenda. Ask for comments or questions only if you have a good reason for wanting them.
“You will inadvertently create Obedient Saboteurs if you reward people for adhering to the rules even when common sense tells them not to.”
3. “Sabotage by Committee”
Saboteurs thrive in committees that can create inefficiency just by drawing out the way they do their jobs. Often, you can’t tell who’s accountable or in charge. Because committees rarely have explicit deadlines, most progress slowly.
To mitigate the pitfalls of committees:
“Inadvertent saboteurs in working groups of every size cc and bcc to their hearts’ content, clogging people’s email inboxes and slowing decision-making processes.”
- Use them only when necessary – Determine if one person could handle the task.
- Choose members carefully – Select people who bring necessary qualities to the team.
- Keep them small – Large groups dilute accountability for results. Consider breaking a large committee into smaller working groups.
- Assign roles – Make sure you designate specific responsibilities to each person. Name a leader.
- Establish a schedule – Always set a deadline. Require periodic updates and scheduled results
4. “Sabotage by Irrelevant Issues”
Saboteurs make digressions seem significant. They might weigh the current situation against one in the past, even though the two aren’t really comparable. Team members will struggle to make sense of the comparison and lose sight of relevant topics.
“A ‘get-the-facts’ approach – an approach that requires an injection of objectivity – is a useful antidote to any form of sabotage that feeds on emotion and perceived pressure.”
Establish a goal and a focus for your meeting. Set ground rules for length and format. Appoint a “content arbiter” to bring the discussion back on track when tangents arise.
5. “Sabotage by Haggling”
Saboteurs waste copious amounts of time quibbling over the wording and grammar of written communications. Although a careful editor can make communication more precise and effective, language “hagglers” snare their co-workers into endless sessions of rewriting or arguments on points of usage and word choice.
“Taken to an extreme, even continuous improvement can lead to sabotage.”
Don’t encourage hagglers by asking for general feedback on a document. Seek comments only on particular points, such as the tone. If your critic begins nitpicking over a wide range of points, ask for a written list of his or her top criticisms.
6. “Sabotage by Reopening Decisions”
Lobbying to reopen an old decision causes all sorts of damage. The people who made the original decision will be unhappy if you don’t consult them, and people who already acted on the decision may feel they wasted their time and effort. As with all these tactics, reversing a previous decision is not necessarily a bad idea. But it becomes dangerous if it springs from any of these motives:
“Saboteurs make you think that what they’re talking about is relevant and important when in reality what they’re saying is tangential, unimportant or even inappropriate.”
- Anger – People may want to revisit a decision because they resent not getting their way the first time. Ask if they have new information that wasn’t available at the time of the decision. If not, don’t reopen it.
- “Bias” – Personal preferences often show up when a company decides to downscale or close down projects. The person who owned those projects feels passionate about them, and will argue that shuttering them is a mistake. Acknowledge the person’s passion and shelve the protest for later consideration.
- “Insecurity” – People who lack confidence like to revisit their old decisions. Respond as you did with the angry saboteur, and ask if any new information has come to light.
- Pique – A saboteur may feel aggravated about not being given a chance to contribute to the original decision. Head this problem off by soliciting feedback from a wide range of people prior to making decisions.
- Lack of assertiveness – Not everyone speaks up in public forums, especially if their opinions contradict senior management’s views. A worker who objects after the matter is decided can cause a range of problems. To avoid this sabotage, go into decision-making sessions with the ground rule that “silence denotes consent.”
People sometimes try to surreptitiously reopen a decision by coming up with their own way to implement it. To avoid this problem, make sure you determine the details of implementation in advance.
“Even small time wasters can add up to a significant loss of time and energy.”
7. “Sabotage by Excessive Caution”
If influential saboteurs push for too much caution, they can stifle creativity and inhibit quick action. When caution permeates a business, employees regard ideas and events as threats, not opportunities.
If people suggest putting the brakes on an idea, determine if they are sensibly cautious by asking them why. If they can’t back up their fears with facts, they are advocating based on emotion, not reality. If they provide facts, list their points alongside reasons to move the decision ahead. Estimate the likelihood that the risks could materialize and ask if slowing down would undermine the project’s opportunities. Mollify the worrier by suggesting defenses against the risks.
“New technologies and organizational forms allow the development of new forms of sabotage all the time.”
8. “Sabotage by Is-It-Really-Our-Call?”
The OSS’s final tactic for institutional sabotage is to wield propriety as a weapon and to question whether a group has the authority to make a certain decision. With this gambit, you spur workers to start second-guessing their responsibilities.
Members of your team may use this ploy if:
“Err on the side of too much care, or hesitation, and you might sabotage yourself or your group, despite your best intentions.”
- They lack confidence – If your employees don’t have faith in their abilities to make decisions, coach them to stiffen their resolve.
- The issue is unclear – Write a “team charter” outlining the parameters of a decision. If you lead the team, start each meeting by reiterating its shared purpose.
- The team lacks a leader – When you assemble a team, assign roles to the members, such as who has the final say and who can veto the decision.
- You intervene – If a team is struggling over a decision, a saboteur can go around the team leader and report conflicts to the manager. If you step, you’ll demoralize the people you empowered to make decisions. Intervene only in the most critical decisions.
“Modern Sabotage by CC”
Email enables a highly effective form of sabotage – using the copy or blind copy function to send copies of emails to large groups. Unwitting saboteurs believe copying everyone keeps the world up to date on their decisions, but people rarely read such inbox-stuffing missives.
“Obedience becomes Sabotage by Obedience – instantly – when it prevents personal judgment from overriding processes that for whatever reason are not working at that moment.”
To counter this sabotage, filter out any weekly or monthly email reports that are not critical to your job. Tell everyone except your boss that you prefer to receive news directly – through a personal email, a call or a face-to-face meeting. When you send an email that requires some sort of action or response, say so in the subject line.
Instead of having each manager broadcast updates to everyone, collate updates from the various departments into one weekly document. Encourage employees to target emails more narrowly. For instance, they should craft one email for those who are carrying out an action and a separate, less-detailed message to update others about the action. Encourage alternative forms of communication, especially face-to-face meetings.