The year was 1944. The Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the organization preceding the CIA, published a classified document, The Simple Sabotage Field Manual. The manual was designed to destroy the Axis powers from within. It contained numerous small acts that would wear down the enemy, but it also contained a list of techniques to sabotage organizations. Ironically, these very same techniques often still sabotage modern organizations. People are not intentionally sabotaging their organizations, but they may not even realize that they are engaged in these behaviors.
Authors Bob Frisch, Cary Greene, and Robert M. Galford review the declassified manual. In Simple Sabotage: A Modern Field Manual for Detecting and Rooting Out Everyday Behaviors That Undermine Your Workplace, they show how the same insidious behaviors are damaging organizations today. How to recognize these damaging behaviors and what to do about them is the subject of this fascinating book.
Bob Frisch sheds light on these everyday behaviors that undermine today’s workplace.
“Successful organizations make and execute decisions faster than their competitors.”
How Good Behaviors Can Become Dangerous
It seems all of us may fall into one of these acts of sabotage at some point or another. How do you recognize these early enough to make a difference?
Good point. And remember, we’re not suggesting you have enemies lurking in your midst doggedly working to bring the organization down. Most of the time, individuals unwittingly employ these tactics – things like ‘doing everything through channels’ or ‘advocating caution.’ These are good behaviors taken to an extreme.
You might think, “This is easy. I’ll just point these things our to my colleagues and the behaviors will stop.” Unfortunately, it’s not that simple, since these corrosive behaviors often become part of the working culture – and spotting them isn’t easy.
The four steps we talk about in the book to both expose and inoculate any group against sabotage are:
Spot sabotage as it occurs. Help others see when a positive behavior crosses the line and becomes counterproductive or destructive.
Put into place the right expectation for tolerance – the range of acceptable behaviors – so that productive behavior is encouraged, but sabotage is prevented.
Give everyone in the organization the permission, language and techniques to call out damaging behaviors in constructive ways.
Introduce tools, metrics and process changes to prevent sabotage from recurring and to help develop a low-sabotage culture.
Sometimes these are sequential, but more often they have to happen at the same time – it depends on the type of sabotage, who spots it and the group you’re dealing with.
“Meetings are indispensable when you don’t want to do anything.” –John Kenneth Galbraith
Sabotage by Committee
Which one is the most prevalent?
In my experience, the most prevalent form of sabotage is sabotage by committee. Too often leaders avoid making difficult decisions by referring them to committees, which creates a delay in the decision making process. As employees wait for decisions, they may get discouraged and dispirited. Some decisions require the use of a committee, particularly when multiple perspectives and areas of expertise are required. However, referring important decisions to committees creates the significant risk of halting momentum and can give the illusion of kicking the can down the road.
Is frequency or the most prevalent type different by kind of organization? For instance, do you see one more often in a for-profit corporation versus an academic institution or government?
Let me put it this way. When it comes to the prevalence of these sabotage tactics, organizations of various shapes, sizes and types are generally created equal. Over the years we’ve shared the list of OSS tactics with hundreds of friends, colleagues and clients – almost every time, they’ve chuckled and said, “That describes my [department, company, group, board, school or church committee].” We’ve heard them all. And that’s why we wrote the book. In our decades of working with individuals and groups in organizations large, small, public, private and non-profit, we’ve seen these corrosive tactics at work and witnessed the damage they can do in these settings.
“Committees can be deadly when they have the appearance that work is taking place when in fact very little is happening.”
Sabotage by Obedience
Would you share an example of sabotage by obedience?
A clothing store requires all sales clerks to get approval from the manager before accepting a $100 bill, for fear of being stuck with a counterfeit. Mrs. Jones, a frequent customer, arrives at the register to make a purchase and only has a $100 bill in her purse. The sales clerk looks for the manager, but unfortunately she is busy helping another customer. Mrs. Jones is waiting and a line is forming at the register, but the manager is in the middle of something and cannot break away to help at the moment. As frustration builds, Mrs. Jones suggests that the clerk write her name and contact information on a post-it note and put it with the bill. This will allow the store to contact her if there is a problem, and she will not continue to hold up the line. While this seems like a sensible compromise, it would require the sales clerk to break a rule, so the obedient clerk declines Mrs. Jones’ suggestion. Expressing her frustration, Mrs. Jones puts her purchase back on the shelf and storms out believing that the store doesn’t value or trust her.
By following the rules with no exceptions, the sales clerk has become a saboteur. She did what she was supposed to do, and she can’t be fired or criticized for following the rules. However, she accidently lost a sale and damaged a relationship with a long-time customer, which is not acceptable.
8 Tactics from the Simple Sabotage Field Manual
1: Insist on doing everything through channels.
2: Make speeches.
3: Refer all matters to committees for further study.
4: Bring up irrelevant issues as frequently as possible.
5: Haggle over precise wordings of communications, minutes, resolutions.
6: Refer back to matters decided upon at the last meeting and attempt to reopen the question.
7: Advocate caution.
8: Be worried about the propriety of any decision.
When to Reopen Decisions
Reopening decisions is one that we have all seen. Talk about that. In your opinion, when is it appropriate to reopen a decision? What would you require before it would even be considered?
We have all been in situations where a decision was made, and days or even weeks later, someone tried to have it reopened. There are absolutely situations where reopening is appropriate. The trick lies in understanding the motivations behind the request, so you know when to cry, “Damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead!” or when to say, “You’ve got a point there, let’s reconsider.”
Here’s the trick: ask the question, “Has new and relevant information or data become available since we made the decision?” If the answer is no, do not reopen – it will most likely do more harm than good. Often, individuals attempt to reopen a decision for no other reason than that they didn’t like the decision in the first place.
However, If the answer is yes, it makes sense to listen and then make a decision whether to reopen. In some cases, it might make sense – but you’ll have to weigh the cost/benefit of doing so given the new and relevant information presented versus the cost/benefit of staying the course. The bottom line is if you make it too easy to reopen decisions, then people will hesitate to make them in the first place, or people will think twice about implementing them. So think carefully before you reopen.
Tip: When irrelevant issues are raised, open a parking lot for future consideration.
Excessive Caution Ahead
Excessive caution seems to be a sabotage behavior and also seems to be wired into some people’s personalities. How do you help people identify it and move forward?
Most of the time, it’s a good idea to be cautious, careful and reasonable. However, erring on the side of too much caution can cause problems. There are a few helpful tactics you can use to determine when caution has become excessive. One is to ask for facts about the situation. Is there a real threat? Is there a major risk? If you can’t get any answers, you’re probably facing sabotage by caution. Another simple way to help identify and prevent sabotage by caution is developing a short list of the pros and cons of proceeding with caution.
Similarly, a company can build checks and balances into decision making processes to help avoid excessive caution. It can also be helpful to consult an employee who is not overly cautious when you find yourself questioning if you are being excessive. Caution may be wired into some people’s personalities, but by taking these steps, sabotage can be prevented.
“Often people question authority when they lack confidence in themselves or the group.”
Email CC: everyone
You included one tactic that was not in the original document. E-mail was not possible at the time. Why did CC: everyone make it on your list?
In today’s world, the average corporate email user sends and receives about 120 emails a day. That’s because sending an email is often misconstrued as informing someone. We all know that recipients often don’t read every sentence of every email, meaning they may not be informed at all.
The discrepancy between, “I sent you an e-mail,” and, “You were informed at the time,” provides a huge chasm within which today’s saboteur can operate. More often than not, people CC: others on emails to cover themselves and spread accountability. By keeping lots of people “in the loop,” the CC: Everyone saboteurs shift accountability away from themselves into a cloud of nothingness. Unfortunately, this puts organizations in a position to fail, where no one is actually informed of anything. While this is a fairly new means of sabotage, it is too prevalent and creates too many issues to be left off of our list.
You include a bell-curve that gives some guidelines for your recommendations. Would you talk a bit about that and the proper overall perspective of these tactics?
The bell-curve test connects to the “Sabotage by Obedience” tactic. It identifies where the outliers of your organization lie, based on the number of exceptions they tend to make regarding the rules of your organization.
The majority of employees lie in the center of the bell curve, creating an expected number of exceptions to rules/activities. The upper and lower ends of the bell curve are where the issues likely lie. These people either make too many exceptions (right) or do not make enough (left). Organizations can easily detect those on the right because there are systems in place to detect violations. These are the people who are noticeably ruffling feathers, frequently out of line, and often trying your nerves.
While these people could be sabotaging your organization, it’s the people on the left-hand side of the curve – people who rarely make exceptions – that need to be monitored. Like the sales clerk who wouldn’t accept the $100 bill from a loyal customer, these are the people who are unknowingly sabotaging your organization right underneath your nose. On the surface, they are model employees, but in reality, their rigid adherence to rules and lack of flexibility is likely hurting the organization. Once you identify these people, you can work with them to recognize sabotage when it occurs, and work to eliminate it.
Rigid adherence to rules and lack of flexibility may hurt the organization.
Simple Sabotage: A Modern Field Manual for Detecting and Rooting Out Everyday Behaviors That Undermine Your Workplace