Skip to main content
Office

How to defeat corporate sabotage in your workplace

Mark Powers

Jan. 10, 2020

Did you think corporate sabotage was a recent invention? Not really. Learn how to combat it like a secret agent.

“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.”

“Insist on doing everything through ‘channels.’ Never permit short-cuts to be taken in order to expedite decisions.”

No, these are not instructions from the Pointy-Haired Boss from the world of Dilbert.

These are two quotes from the Simple Sabotage Field Manual, first published in the early 1940s by the Office of Strategic Services (the forerunner of today’s CIA and U.S. Special Operations Forces) to guide its agents in disrupting the Nazi war effort in occupied Europe. But if you think these describe your workplace over 75 years later, you aren’t alone. This manual has become a cult classic for office dwellers, who wonder, “Who told the OSS how we operate?”

President Roosevelt established the OSS in World War II to parachute agents into occupied Europe to gather intelligence, conduct sabotage, and strengthen local resistance groups. This manual helped its agents understand how to disrupt production in areas controlled by enemy forces. OSS agents would train locals to employ these techniques in their workplaces so they could inflict damage to the Nazi war effort without overtly placing themselves at risk.

Unlike in 1944, today there are some ways to easily defeat these top-secret OSS techniques if you see them crop up in your workplace. Understanding the vulnerabilities that the OSS was targeting is the first step in devising your own solutions to similar dirty tricks.

Below I’ll give you six ways you can think about regaining efficiency and work satisfaction by defeating your corporate saboteurs.

In meetings

“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.”

Vulnerability: The OSS knew that having more attendees in a meeting drives up the cost of that meeting, slows down decision-making, and reduces the organization’s productivity by impeding productive changes.

Resolution: Measure your organization’s meeting sizes and figure out if there are too many attendees. If so, you can pare down attendees by looking for pairs of managers and their direct reports in meetings, and determining if both people are really necessary: Can the manager provide the direct report’s input, or inform the direct after? Can the direct do the same for the manager?

Apply the 8-18-1800 rule of thumb on meeting size: 8 for decision making, 18 for brainstorming, and more than 18 for informing/exciting the workforce.

“Make ‘speeches.’ Talk as frequently as possible and at great length. Illustrate your ‘points’ by long anecdotes and accounts of personal experiences.”

Vulnerability: The OSS wanted its saboteurs to prolong meetings as much as possible to sap attention and waste time. Every minute one of their corporate saboteurs was talking stole many minutes of productivity from all the meeting attendees.

Resolution: To hamper corporate sabotage, understand your organization’s meeting culture, such as the average duration of meetings your employees experience, so you can have targeted interventions for the worst offenders. Identify the longest recurring meetings and see if they can be held less frequently or made shorter.

One way of visualizing a company’s meeting culture. How would yours look?

“Insist on doing everything through ‘channels.’ Never permit short-cuts to be taken in order to expedite decisions.”

Vulnerability: The OSS knew that corporate saboteurs could take advantage of existing policies and structures to delay, delay, and delay. By eliminating managerial judgment, they could act as blockers for progress and productivity.

Resolution: Identify bottlenecks through network analysis or collaboration analysis. Do the information flows you see make sense? Are organizations collaborating horizontally, or are they primarily connected at the top?

Think about determining which recurring processes consume the most collaboration time. Working with one of our clients, Microsoft’s Workplace Analytics team found that a regular Business Process Review meeting involved 750–1,200 employees each month and generated far more work than expected by the management (who had no visibility on how much time this meeting cost them). By re-thinking how to gather the same insights, the client freed up thousands of person-hours each month to speed up decision making elsewhere and regain some productivity.

Managers

“When training new workers, give incomplete or misleading instructions.”

Vulnerability: The OSS knew that new hires were particularly vulnerable because they lacked the skills, knowledge, and network to combat corporate sabotage. Delays in the ramp-up of new hires would cause a productivity loss that was hard to overcome and could lead to retention issues.

Resolution: Measure whether and how your managers conduct one-on-ones with new hires. Research indicates that just a single one-on-one meeting with their manager within the first week of joining a new company can lead new employees to build larger networks and integrate more into their teams than those who don’t have a one-on-one. In the long run, the amount of one-on-one time an employee spends with their manager affects how engaged they feel at work, and how they ultimately view the leadership of their company.

Office workers

“Spread disturbing rumors that sound like inside dope.”

Vulnerability: The OSS was a master of deception, even fooling Hitler about the location of the Allied invasion on D-Day after Allied forces were ashore at Normandy. They knew that bad rumors could crush morale and undermine a company’s internal narratives. And since most organizations don’t know who their influencers are or how information flows around, they are powerless to stop rumors or leverage their influencers for a counter-narrative.

Resolution: Network analysis can uncover the key influencers within an organization or for a specific topic. By identifying where your influencers are, you can take advantage of their messaging power to assist in driving change narratives. You can also measure which organizations or teams have the most control over information about certain topics to tailor your messaging strategies through certain influencers.

Employees

“Contrive as many interruptions to your work as you can.”

Vulnerability: The OSS wanted to disrupt office workers’ trains of thought as reliably as they disrupted real-world train travel. By contending with constant disruptions, workers were forced to context-shift and less able to produce deep, thoughtful work. Research has shown that it takes 15 minutes to return to a productive state after an interruption, especially for thoughtful work.

Resolution: Measure the fragmentation of your organization’s calendars to determine how much focus time people get in a week. Then, set targets and identify ways to increase their focus time. For example, one of our clients compacted all the meetings its developers were involved in into one morning block, which enabled them to be productive for many uninterrupted focus hours afterward. Tools such as MyAnalytics can also help workers identify and block focus hours ahead of time, further reducing the fragmentation of their productive time.

A role for workplace intelligence

The Axis armies feared the OSS during World War II, and rightfully so. Their operatives were able to generate battlefield and strategic effects out of proportion to their small numbers.

Even if the OSS isn’t targeting your organization, you can still learn from their tactics to improve efficiency, productivity, and engagement in your workplace and combat the worst kinds of corporate sabotage. The capabilities are there, both for measuring and for intervening. It only takes the will—and the intelligence—to change.

Mark Powers

Mark Powers is a Workplace Intelligence Engagement Manager and improves the effectiveness and culture of Microsoft’s clients in Europe, Middle East, and Africa through data analytics. When not at work, he can be found exploring the mountains of Switzerland, where he lives with his wife.