It’s easy to spot stellar employees — they obey the rules, think before they act and are meticulous about communications. But what if your best employees are inadvertently hurting productivity far more than many of your “troublemakers”?
It’s likely. We know this because we’ve read the U.S. Government’s (declassified) “Simple Sabotage Field Manual.” Written during World War II by the CIA’s predecessor, the Office of Strategic Services, this volume has an entire section devoted to the subtle destruction of an organization’s performance from within.
The tactics included all look like good behaviors —doing things through channels and urging colleagues to avoid haste, for example. But these behaviors turn from good to bad when they’re taken just a little too far — either deliberately, as the OSS intended, or inadvertently, as is commonly the case today.
Odds are your organization has a fair share of unwitting saboteurs at work right now, unintentionally creating circumstances that make it very difficult for people to be productive. In “Simple Sabotage: A Modern Field Manual for Detecting and Rooting Out Everyday Behaviors That Undermine Your Workplace,” we explore this phenomenon in detail. Here are four of the most damaging behaviors that bring productivity and efficiency to a halt.
1. Sabotage by obedience.
“Insist on doing everything through ‘channels.’ Never permit shortcuts to be taken in order to expedite decisions,” said the OSS tactic.
We agree channels are important, but formal structures inadvertently cause damage as soon as they prevent an employee’s sound personal judgment from overriding a process that is not working in the moment.
Suppose a client is balking at a new contract, but the senior manager who holds the authority to approve a change is away. The manager knows the senior manager would be fine with the change. However, they say, “I can’t help you; that would violate company policy,” thus committing sabotage by obedience.
One antidote to this kind of sabotage is overhauling the company’s rules. Some may be obsolete, and others may be unnecessarily restrictive. Another antidote is determining when certain rules can be “bent” and letting employees know whether any given policy should be considered a strong guideline, rather than an ultimatum.
2. Sabotage by committee.
“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,” the OSS manual advises.
Committees keep a company running smoothly because they allow the major streams of daily work to continue, while creating space to focus on special issues. The problem is that committees are often too big, poorly directed and lack a clear charter — a goal, a deadline and an agreed-upon process. Instead, the people involved will spend a lot of time and effort to spend a lot of time and effort, with very little time doing any purposeful work.
The remedy is straightforward: Keep these groups as lean as possible, and make sure that each individual on the committee understands exactly why they are there, what they’re supposed to do and by when.
3. Sabotage by irrelevant issues.
“Bring up irrelevant issues as frequently as possible,” the manual said.
Engaged employees might bring up irrelevant issues during meetings out of a genuine desire to ensure that the topic on the table is being thoroughly vetted. Suppose, for example, that a competitor has recently gone out of business. Your organization, which is doing well, is about to spend a lot of money on a new marketing campaign. But at a meeting focused on honing the details of the campaign, a group member starts talking about that ill-fated competitor’s final months. The topic is interesting and could potentially hold lessons for your organization, but it’s not the right time and place for that discussion.
The fix for this kind of sabotage is to be sure that the focus and goal of the meeting are very clear at the outset. Then, if someone raises an unexpected issue, the meeting’s leader can quickly ask that person to clarify how that issue is directly related to the meeting’s desired outcome. Don’t be afraid to say, “Let’s talk about that later. We need to focus on this right now.”
4. Sabotage by CC: Everyone.
Although this sabotage tactic is too modern to be in the original manual, we feel this method of organizational destruction would be included now. It would have read: “CC: Everyone. Send updates as frequently as possible, continually increasing the distribution list to anyone even peripherally involved.”
Good employees know that communication is very important. But well-meaning people often mistake the “CC” option for a guarantee that everyone is truly informed, and therefore implicated in the responsibility for whatever decisions or actions that result from the email chain. The result is that people are drowning in a tsunami of inbound information, and they spend far too much time trying to decipher the signal from the noise —time that should be spent on focused, purposeful work.
Prevent this sabotage by following these guidelines (and asking everyone in the organization to do the same):
- Take yourself off distribution lists you don’t need to be on.
- Ask to be informed personally when you need to know something.
- Let senders know that if they don’t receive a response, they cannot assume that you are in the loop, or that your silence constitutes approval of decision or action.
- Make sure your email subject lines include information about pending deadlines or required responses.
- Push back against the “creep” of a culture that favors communicating by device over communicating in person. Pick up the phone, schedule video conferences and meet face-to-face.
Rooting out inadvertent sabotage isn’t a one-and-done effort. It’s also not easy. However, successfully combatting this kind of sabotage is worth your ongoing vigilance. The rewards of a high-functioning work environment are great.