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.”