Staffing Management

Sabotage in the Workplace Is an Inside Job

By Bob Frisch

Apr. 27, 2016

Human resources professionals hear a lot behind closed doors from people at all levels of an organization.

So it’s a fair guess that HR pros have the best view of overall culture and the various subcultures that exist in certain departments. HR leaders know when groups of employees are motivated and when they’re not; they know when a worker’s presence and personality is raising the bar for others and getting them excited about work.

They also know when someone’s performance or attitude is acting as a drag and likely possess excellent techniques to accentuate the positives and curb the negatives.

And they also know that there are times when departments underperform even when the team is sincere, hard-working employees with the company’s best interests at heart. People may complain to one another and to HR that decisions aren’t being made well, that they can’t seem to get their work done on time and that the department as a whole isn’t as productive as it should be. Yet no one can pinpoint the problem.

The Obedient Saboteur

Many organizations employ what is known as the “obedient saboteur.”

Let’s use Michael as an example. He is talking to a potential (and potentially important) client who wants him to change several stipulations in a proposed contract. Michael thinks the request is reasonable and has done his research, and he knows he can sell this client many add-on services down the line.

He wants to approve the changes but can’t. The rules say his boss has to sign off, and his boss is away. So he explains the situation and says he will get back to the potential client.

But that client has to select the winning bid by the end of the day. Michael isn’t able to respond until tomorrow and loses the deal.

Companies love employees like Michael — people who do what they’re supposed to do all the time. They keep things running smoothly and predictably.

But the obedient saboteur prevents personal judgment from overriding processes — like waiting on a supervisor’s approval at the expense of winning an important new contract — that for whatever reason are not working at the moment.

—Bob Frisch, Rob Galford and Cary Greene

That’s when you need to suspect simple sabotage: People behaving in ways that look good, sound logical and seem smart but in fact are slowly undermining everyone’s best efforts.

We’re not talking about people pretending to be good employees but deliberately working under the radar to gum up the works. We’re talking about people who genuinely believe they are doing the right things (and who, for all intents and purposes, look as if they’re doing the right things) but are hurting your organization’s performance.

Simple sabotage exists in one form or another in every organization, and it’s like a virus piggybacking on normally benign activities as it spreads. Left unchecked, it can hurt a company from the inside every bit as much as an unexpected competitor or market shift can from the outside. HR professionals need to be able to recognize its existence, spread the word and offer the organization ways to identify it, call it out (without placing blame), deal with it and prevent it. HR leaders have one of the most effective vantage points for rooting it out. The company’s health is at stake.

How We Learned About Simple Sabotage

We didn’t begin focusing on how good employees — even excellent ones — can unintentionally damage an organization until co-author Bob Frisch discovered a declassified U.S. government document produced in 1944 titled “Simple Sabotage Field Manual.” Written under the auspices of Gen. William “Wild Bill” Donovan at the height of World War II, the manual presented a wide variety of easily executed sabotage tactics; it was printed in several languages and smuggled behind enemy lines to Allied supporters.

Much of the manual was focused on physical acts of sabotage — slashing tires, starting fires with piles of oily rags and short-circuiting electrical systems. But a section was devoted to causing trouble in offices without getting caught, specifically by slowing down or even stalling decision-making processes, taking meetings off-track and generally weakening the enemy’s organizational infrastructure under the guise of good or even exemplary behavior.

These tactics were devastatingly destructive, and as Frisch read through them, he was struck by the notion that the same acts of sabotage were likely in widespread use today. In fact, he suspected unintentional acts of “simple sabotage” identical to the ones listed in the manual were probably acting as a corrosive agent in many if  not most organizations.

We conducted a survey and interviewed dozens of senior executives. Our research confirmed Frisch’s thinking: Simple sabotage has the potential to run rampant and wreak havoc in any organization.

The Tactics

The Office of Strategic Services, a U.S. wartime intelligence agency, identified eight such behaviors in the section of the “Simple Sabotage” manual dedicated to organizations:

  1. “Insist on doing everything through ‘channels.’ Never permit shortcuts to be taken in order to expedite decisions.”
  2. “Make ‘speeches.’ Talk as frequently as possible and at great length. Illustrate your ‘points’ by long anecdotes and accounts of personal experiences. Never hesitate to make a few appropriate ‘patriotic’ comments.”
  3. “When possible, refer all matters to committees for ‘further study and consideration.’ Attempt to make the committees as large as possible — never less than five.”
  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 of the advisability of that decision.”
  7. “Advocate ‘caution.’ Be ‘reasonable’ and urge your fellow conferees to ‘be reasonable’ and avoid haste which might result in embarrassments or difficulties later on.”
  8. “Be worried about the propriety of any decision — raise the question of whether such action as is contemplated lies within the jurisdiction of the group or whether it might conflict with the policy of some higher echelon.”

Most HR pros can recognize some of them. They may think they can identify the culprits and stamp out inadvertent sabotage easily. But is that really possible?

Take for example the tactic about bringing up irrelevant issues. HR leaders may be able to name the people who are known for their ability to inject random or personal stories into any conversation. But these people aren’t the saboteurs. They’re easy to spot, and usually easy to shut down. (“Steve, we would love to hear about your chicken coop, but now’s not the time. Let’s move on.”)

Sabotage occurs in this case when the issue being raised seems to be relevant. The saboteurs think that what they’re saying is relevant, and their earnestness only helps make their case. They are engaging in good behavior, but taking the discussion at hand way off track.

Here’s an example. When someone says, “Let’s learn from others’ mistakes,” they’re about to make a comparison between what the team is dealing with now and what another team has dealt with (incorrectly) in the past. The problem is that too often the people who raise such comparisons are putting apples against oranges.

Say there is planning for the annual retreat. HR has scheduled a meeting to brainstorm breakout sessions. It starts well, but then a colleague brings up a very poorly run industry conference that several people in the room recently attended.

Left unchecked, simple sabotage can hurt a company from the inside every bit as much as an unexpected competitor or market shift can from the outside.

The group starts talking about that event, with attendees explaining how confused they were trying to find certain breakout sessions because of poor signage, how hard it was to hear speakers because of loud events taking place in rooms separated only by dividers, and how difficult it was to network at mealtimes because of the large numbers of people from other conferences using the same facility.

Doing a post-mortem on someone else’s actions is interesting, and so people, including the HR leader, engage with vigor. Soon 20 minutes goes by. The task at hand isn’t accomplished in the time allotted, so there’s a need to reschedule.

No one feels badly though because the group has raised several potential issues about the venue to discuss with the people who are arranging the location and logistics. And no one stops to think about whether the people arranging location and logistics need that input to begin with.

Another common way to commit sabotage by irrelevance? Bring up a burning issue. Usually, the inadvertent saboteur in this case believes they’re going to save the day by raising a topic that is critically important.

They might walk into a meeting about the company’s loyalty program and say something like, “I just saw the results of our survey about customer service and we have a problem that we need to talk about now.”

Maybe customer service is in shambles, but are the right people in the room to talk about it and make decisions about what’s to be done? Probably not. Meanwhile, what about the loyalty program?

Multiply these two instances by the eight tactics, then by the dozens (or hundreds or thousands of meetings or communications) that occur across an organization on a daily basis and it’s clear how insidious and pervasive simple sabotage can be.

Simple sabotage in some form is hurting organizations. Because of its nature — and human nature — it always will be. But savvy HR leaders can fight effectively against it and minimize its effects. Recognizing it is the first step.

Robert M. Galford, Bob Frisch and Cary Greene are co-authors of “Simple Sabotage: A Modern Field Manual for Detecting and Rooting Out Everyday Behaviors That Undermine Your Workplace.” Galford is managing partner of the Center for Leading Organizations; Frisch is the managing partner and Greene is a partner of the Strategic Offsites Group. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com. Follow Workforce on Twitter at @workforcenews.

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