In 1944, the predecessor of the Central Intelligence Agency in the United States, the Office of Strategic Services, published some guidelines for the European resistance movement designed to sabotage the Nazi regime.
The Simple Sabotage Field Manual offered some easy ways to disrupt the enemy's institutions without being detected. "Occurring on a wide scale, simple sabotage will be a constant and tangible drag on the war efforts of the enemy," it declared.
That war is long over. But the authors of a recent field manual for business, Simple Sabotage, argue that many of the tactics used to deliberately hinder the Nazis are still at play in your workplace – however unintentionally – and you need to guard against them.
Sound unlikely? Check the list:
Sabotage by obedience: Insist on doing everything through channels. Never permit short cuts to be taken in order to expedite decisions. In your workplace today, how often do people fail to do the right thing because they think procedures and rules block them?
Sabotage by speech: Talk as frequently as possible and at great length. Illustrate your points with long anecdotes and personal accounts. "People get a platform and will hold on to it, using it as a bully pulpit. They might say, 'This reminds me of' and wander into a story about their dog," Robert Galford, managing partner of the Center for Leading Organizations and a co-author, said in an interview.
Sabotage by committee: When possible, refer items to committees for further study. Make the committees as large as possible to ensure ineffectiveness. "It has been said that committees are where ideas go to die," Mr. Galford noted.
Sabotage by irrelevant issues: Clog the process by raising irrelevant issues as often as possible. We routinely get undercut by colleagues who raise tangential matters, unintentionally clouding the real issue.
Sabotage by haggling: Haggle over precise wordings of communications, minutes and resolutions. We've all seen this as the wordsmiths and picky editors burrow in, ego aflame, to get the minutes or the new guidelines to reflect their exact phrasing. This happens everywhere but certain industries are more susceptible. "If your stock and trade is language, it's natural for this to occur," he said.
Sabotage by reopening decisions: Refer back to matters decided at the last meeting and attempt to reopen discussion about whether that direction is advisable. "This can be truly insidious. You didn't get the decision you wanted, so let's reopen the matter," Mr. Galford said.
Sabotage by excessive caution: Always advocate caution. Tell everyone you are just being "reasonable" and urge them to act similarly, avoiding haste, since it may lead to an embarrassment later on. He points to Kodak, which saw the digital revolution coming but thought it could protect its existing products through excessive caution.
Sabotage by 'Is-it-really-our-call?' Worry about the propriety of any decision – does this person or group really have the authority to decide this matter? Or perhaps the decision conflicts with the policy at some higher echelon? When this happens nowadays, it's a sign of structural tensions and an inability to clarify decision rights within the organization.
The list from 1944 applies today but if agency director William J. (Wild Bill) Donovan were alive, the book's authors suspect he'd add one more, to capture our wired world. Modern sabotage, they say, would come by cc: copying everyone on your e-mails. Back when the original guidelines were written, carbon copies actually required sheets of carbon paper to be inserted in a typewriter and two was usually the maximum. The ability to deluge everyone around us with our ideas is seemingly limitless today, say the authors, who with Mr. Gelfond are Bob Frisch and Cary Greene of Strategic Offsites Consulting.
Not that we do it deliberately. But that's the point. Such destructive behaviour occurs in the modern office not out of malevolence but out of thoughtlessness and concerns with our own fears and ego.
Indeed, one of the toughest to handle – it topped the 1944 list – is sabotage by obedience. Sometimes people have to use their best judgment and override processes that don't fit the situation. Mr. Galford suggests that if you want a sense of how bad the rules are in your organization, put an experienced person through employee orientation: "We tell people ridiculous things or things that were valid at one time but aren't now."
In this case and all the others on the list, you need to ferret out the unwitting saboteurs and educate them. Remember that you're not out to target individuals – but to spot bad behaviour. Then comes rehabilitation and prevention. And don't expect to find the bad behaviour just down in the ranks. It can happen at all levels.
Simple sabotage, even when not deliberate, can be a constant and tangible drag on your own organization's efforts.
Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column, Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter