Unintentional acts by employees can thwart productivity and damage morale. Take a page from an old espionage manual—and learn what not to do.

In 1944 the Office of Strategic Studies, a predecessor of the Central Intelligence Agency, published a 32-page manual entitled Simple Sabotage. The manual was intended to be covertly distributed to freedom-seeking people in corners of the world where freedom was not a welcomed concept.

It is mostly an instructional manual on how to muck up industrial operations of all sorts. The introductory section notes "[s]abotage varies from highly technical coup de main acts that require detailed planning and the use of specially-trained operatives, to innumerable simple acts which the ordinary individual citizen-saboteur can perform... Simple sabotage does not require specially prepared tools or equipment; it is executed by an ordinary citizen who may or may not act individually and without the necessity for active connection with an organized group... The targets of his sabotage are usually objects to which he has normal and inconspicuous access in everyday life."

Acts of simple sabotage, multiplied by thousands of citizen-saboteurs, can be an effective weapon against the enemy. Unfortunately, unintentional acts by large numbers of employees can be just as damaging to an organization's effectiveness and output capacity as intentional ones. If you lead or manage others—whether three or 3,000—you're well positioned to help eradicate practices and policies that can sabotage productivity.

The interesting information for modern-day managers is found in the last few pages of the manual, under the heading "General Interference with Organization and Production." This section is particularly attention-getting because even a cursory review of the description of the typical acts of simple sabotage designed to derail productivity in organizations seems to suggest that the bad guys—whoever they may be—have gotten their hands on a copy of this manual, and are making considerable headway in using its teachings against us. Some of the most obvious examples follow.


"Insist on doing everything through ‘channels.' Never permit shortcuts to be taken in order to expedite decisions." Too much micromanagement, over time, conditions subordinates to engage in this form of organizational sabotage. The reality in many organizations is that the boss is pretty darn smart. If you're the boss, you may in fact be one of the smartest—or even the smartest—person in your organization.

It may be that you could do most of your employees' jobs better than they could. That said, you need to realize that the organization you're now responsible for steering at the strategic level, as opposed to the tactical level, can't afford to have you spend your time focusing on minutiae. You don't need middle managers working for you who are adept at carrying out detailed instructions you give them. You need subordinate managers who can and will think for you. Don't disempower them to the point of over coordinating everything.

Create Committees

"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." This close cousin of the "coordinate everything through channels" practice is most often illustrated in overuse of the CC option in office email. Sending a CC to anybody and everybody you can think of is an act of simple sabotage made incomparably easy in modern organizations. While it's important to involve "the right" people in critical decision making, that doesn't mean everybody needs to know about, or have opportunity to comment on, everything.

Inspect Details

"Haggle over precise wordings of communications, minutes, [and] resolutions . … Insist on perfect work in relatively unimportant products." While it's important to communicate clearly, that doesn't mean individual employees or managers should agonize over inconsequential word choice in every document or presentation. If you regularly change much of what your subordinates write, they'll come to regard you as the proofreader. They'll spend less time paying attention to detail in their own work product, assuming you're going to return it for a host of digitally enabled "happy-to-glad" changes anyway.

Clearly communicate your expectations for all manner of written work product, reward employees who meet those expectations, and hold accountable those who don't. But don't make a habit of falling into the time-sapping and productivity-eroding revision loop just because your subordinates say it one way, and you might say it another.

Use More Resources

"Order high-quality materials [that] are hard to get. If you don't get them argue about it. Warn that inferior materials will mean inferior work." Ten thousand years ago, two hunters left a village and set out on a hunt griping about the fact that the tribal chief told them to bring back three buffalos but only gave them two spears. Nothing has changed. From the beginning of time, it has been the task of leaders and managers to figure out how to accomplish more with the resources they're provided than would initially seem possible. That's the deal. Make peace with that reality or you might want to start thinking about a non-management job.

Everyone Is a Winner

"To lower morale and with it, production, be pleasant to inefficient workers; give them undeserved promotions." As a general rule, most people prefer to avoid confrontation or the type of unpleasantness that frequently comes from one person telling another that he or she is performing poorly.

All too often this reluctance to engage homogenizes your talent pool in their appraisals, bonuses, work assignments, or any other indicators that might otherwise distinguish good performers from mediocre or poor ones. Though it's tempting to think this "path of least resistance" approach will minimize disharmony in the workplace, it actually has the opposite effect. Most of your superior performers will start asking why they're working so hard if "everybody gets a trophy" anyway, and your poor performers will have little incentive—or even opportunity—to improve. More importantly, every time you shy away from correcting a problem employee's behavior in the name of conflict avoidance, you'll incite 10 more to smoldering discontentment. Over time, that translates into a watering down or even exodus of your best talent, and decreased organizational performance across the board.

Break Focus

"Contrive as many interruptions to your work as you can." If you encourage behaviors in your organization that suggest you value speed over effectiveness, you may be causing more problems than you know. When knowledge workers (people who contribute value to their employers by making decisions or solving problems compared to those performing physical labor) break focus on tasks they're performing to answer emails, tweets, text messages, and the like, all that frenetic mental channel changing makes them dumber than if they got stoned out of their minds smoking pot.

Because it's considerably easier to evaluate a subordinate's responsiveness (how quickly he or she typically answers an emailed question, for example) than his or her effectiveness (the magnitude of an individual employee's contribution to the bottom line), many managers tend to confuse the two, driving their subordinates to shoot for "answering fast" whether or not they're "answering smart."

Let your actions demonstrate you'd rather receive one well thought out, coordinated, mission-furthering proposal tomorrow, than a dozen superficial snippets 10 minutes after you hit the send button today.

Bad Apples

"Be as irritable and quarrelsome as possible without getting yourself into trouble." Never forget the impact of morale on a workforce's productivity. Optimism really is, as Collin Powell is often quoted as saying, a force multiplier. Most good leaders recognize the criticality of maintaining—at least outwardly—a positive optimistic attitude. What fewer understand, or are willing to enforce in organizations they lead, is the importance of everybody, not just the boss, being approachable.

Every organization has at least a few people others regard as snippy or abrasive. More often than not, managers overlook a rude employee's discourtesy toward others simply as "quirkiness" or "just the way he or she is."

Like it or not, one bad apple really can spoil the whole bunch. Maybe co-workers grow hesitant to offer new ideas at meetings; or perhaps they're reluctant to participate in projects in which the problem employee is involved. In these cases and many others too numerous to catalog here, it only takes one difficult person to negatively affect the productivity of lots of other people. Don't be hesitant to require courtesy and kindness in the organization or agency you run.

Seize every opportunity to thwart the saboteurs within. Your enterprise will be all the better for your efforts.