In her recent blog, “A Little Happier,” Gretchen Rubin mentioned a recently declassified document from 1944 that gave tips for how to sabotage enemy operations. Some of the tips were aimed at workers and managers in organizations.

The recommended behaviors are just a bit too familiar. Today we’ll look at what they were, and why it’s important to have strategies to maneuver around them.

The guide referenced is the Simple Sabotage Field Manual, published by the United States War Department, Strategic Services Unit, 1944. The full document can be found here:

And the Gretchen Rubin post that pointed me to it can be found here:


In her “A Little Happier” email series, author Gretchen Rubin shared a document that I found fascinating. It was a guide created in 1944, and recently declassified by the Department of Homeland Security, on how to commit sabotage to enemy operations. Most of the content relates to specific manufacturing and agricultural operations, but a couple of sections dealt with organizations and management. Here’s what it included:

Insist on doing everything through “channels.” Never permit shortcuts to be taken in order to expedite a decision.

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.

When possible, refer all that matters to committees for further study and consideration. Attempt to make committees as large as possible, never less than five. Bring up irrelevant issues as frequently as possible.

Haggle over precise wording of communications, minutes and resolutions. Refer back to matters decided upon at the last meeting and attempt to reopen the question of advisability of that decision.

Advocate caution. Be reasonable and urge your fellow conferences to be reasonable and avoid haste, which might result in embarrassment or difficulties later on.

Be worried about the propriety of any decision. Raise the question of whether such action as contemplated lies within the jurisdiction of the group, or whether it might conflict with the policies of some higher echelon. …

In making work assignments, always sign out the unimportant jobs first, see that the important jobs are assigned to inefficient workers on poor machines.

Insist on perfect work in relatively unimportant products. Send back for refinishing those which have the least flaw. Approve other defective parts whose flaws are not visible to the naked eye.

When training new workers, giving complete or misleading instructions and to lower morale and with it, production.

Be pleasant to inefficient workers. Give them undeserved promotions, discriminate against efficient workers, complain unjustly about their work.

– Simple Sabotage Field Manual, United States War Department, Strategic Services Unit, 1944

Now, if you are like most people working in organizations, these behaviors may sound awfully familiar. You may even be living through them in your own organization.

My guess is that most of the time these behaviors show up in unintentionally – not because someone is actually trying to sabotage the organization. A manager may be more pleasant to an inefficient worker if they have a bias that has them notice the inefficient worker more than the productive one. Or if they like the kind of work the inefficient worker does or how they do it more than the efficient worker. I know managers often give out work assignments that are easy and short rather than the more important ones, simply because they’re overwhelmed. It takes a fair amount of strategic thinking to start with the most important stuff first.

Occasionally, however, sabotaging behaviors are intentional. I’ve heard far too many stories lately of people who are being intentionally political – throwing their colleagues under the bus when things go wrong, or taking credit for someone else’s work, or intentionally thwarting the work of another department, for their own career gain. These kinds of behaviors can be extremely destructive. If you, as a manager or leader, see them happening on your teams, it’s important that you act on that right away. If you find yourself tempted to play these games, don’t. They simply do not work in the long-run.

That doesn’t mean that all forms of “politics” in organizations are bad. Dr. Joel Deluca, in his book, Political Savvy, suggests that there are two dimensions to consider when it comes to organizational politics:

– Does the political activity benefit you or not?

– Does it benefit the organization or not?

The kinds of politics that are sabotaging, that we’re talking about, are the ones that will benefit the person, at the cost of the productivity or success of the organization. Those are what DeLuca called Machiavellian strategies. Over time Machiavellian strategies erode the organizations where they are allowed to flourish. Enron, anyone?

On the other hand, if you’re using connections and relationships in the organization in a way that benefits both you and the company, that’s an effective use of politics. In those situations, you’re aligning your best interests to the best interests of the company (and by extension, the best interests of the customers). It’s a win-win.

One of the most important things that you can do for your career is to build your political awareness. You need to be able to notice the sabotaging behaviors happening around you, whether they’re intentionally Machiavellian, or unintentionally bad management. Then you need to know how to maneuver around them.

Those are the kinds of strategies my clients learn. There’s no way to get out of politics in an organization, but there is a way to face them, authentically and skillfully. It is possible to be true to yourself and loyal to your organization in the face of people who are not acting in the best interest of the organization. The more you know about how to do that, the more successfully you’ll navigate your career, particularly as you go up the ladder.

It’s not always easy. Facing ugly organizational politics and sabotaging behaviors takes courage and skill. That’s why it’s useful to have a coach or a trusted advisor from outside the organization who can help you move through them. That’s what I do for my clients. I help them understand what’s happening and figure out the moves they can make in response. The goal is always to find those win-wins. How can they respond that will move the organization forward and by extension, their own careers, without doing anything untoward of their own?

I talk to so many people who have been the victim of someone else’s sabotaging behaviors. They’ve been held back, kept from promotions, overlooked for key assignments, and even laid off. Those kinds of experiences can have a big impact on their self-esteem and on their enthusiasm for work. They worry about it happening again, and may close themselves off from future opportunities, from a self-protective stance. That pulls their career down even farther. That’s why, if you’ve been the victim of someone else’s Machiavellian behavior, it’s important to unpack that experience, so it doesn’t continue to drag you down.

If you’re interested in knowing more about how to recover from someone else’s Machiavellian moves, or about how to maneuver through a landmine of sabotaging behaviors in your career, let’s talkYou can tell me all about your situation, and we can think about your next steps. If I think I can help you to get through or passed it, we’ll talk about what that could look like. If not, I’ll do my best to point you to other resources. Either way, you’ll walk away with some clarity about your next steps. I look forward to talking to you.

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