Sabotage-Proof Your Hiring

The danger of bringing the wrong team members on board is real, both for you and everyone on your team.

Image by Bruno /Germany from Pixabay.

The blog But What For? has a fantastic post up on historic sabotage (if you haven’t read the post yet, do; it’s great and relevant for what we will be talking about.) The blogger stumbled on a historic OSS (think CIA, but older) manual on how an average person could contribute to the war effort significantly without ever holding a gun or detonating a bomb. If enough people just did their jobs poorly, the manual says, they could slow down the Nazi war machine enough to give the allies the advantage they needed:

The purpose of the manual is fairly straightforward - it is to…

characterize simple sabotage, to outline its possible effects, and to present suggestions for inciting and executing it.

Sabotage varies from highly technical coup de main acts that require detailed planning and the use of specially trained operatives, to innumnerable simple acts which the ordinary individual citizen-saboteur can perform. This paper is primarily concerned with the latter type….

Simple sabotage requires no destructive tools whatsoever and produces physical damage, if any, by highly indirect means. It is based on universal opportunities to make faulty decisions, to adopt a non-cooperative attitude, and to induce others to follow suit. Making a faulty decision may be simply a matter of placing tools in one spot instead of another. A non-cooperative attitude may involve nothing more than creating an unpleasant situation among one’s fellow workers, engaging in bickerings, or displaying surliness and stupidity.

This type of activity, sometimes referred to as the “human element," is frequently responsible for accidents, delays, and general obstruction even under normal conditions. The potential saboteur should discover what types of faulty decisions and cooperation are normally found in this kind of work and should then devise his sabotage so as to enlarge that “margin for error."

The manual, published in 1944, has now been declassified - but it was once used as a reference guide for OSS operatives globally to train individuals in German-occupied territories how to best become “citizen saboteurs.” It says that “purposeful stupidity is contrary to human nature” and thus the manual means to serve as inspiration and direction for saboteurs.

In short, the best way that ordinary citizens, unhappy with the German occupation, could aid the Allied military was to drive inefficiency in their workplaces - to slow down every attempt at progress and make even the simplest tasks frustrating.

The manual itself covers a lot of ground - from sabotaging water systems to arson - but the part that affects us more directly is its description of sabotage a worker can cause just by being ineffective, or that a leader in a company can cause with too many meetings and too much insistence on following rules to the letter. But What For mostly focuses on this from a perspective of organizational processes, rules and regulations:

And there we have it - some of the easiest ways to prevent a group of people from effectively working together. If you are like me, many of these things sound surprisingly familiar. A manual written in 1944 seems to suggest that the best way to break down organizations is to utilize behaviors that organizations today treat as “best practices.”

The next time you see these things causing trouble, maybe it makes sense to call them out. Explain how things might be done differently to improve your chance at success by avoiding the things sure to cause failures.

If you get any pushback, send around this manual - maybe knowing that the U.S. military’s best suggestion for citizens to help it win a war was to destroy an enemy’s organizational efficiency will cause some pause. The military suggested the same practices you have been using to attempt the opposite.

This may at least prompt a discussion about how we might improve our processes today.

The author is right: the manual can and should be viewed as a warning for those who view things from a high level and think about them in terms of process. But in reading the blog, I couldn’t help but think about it from another angle. The whole point of the Simple Sabotage manual is that these are things an individual can do all by themselves that are capable of putting the hurt on a much larger organization. You’d think enemy forces could easily catch and remove these saboteurs, but that’s the genius of the thing; every recommendation is just to participate in bad workplace behaviors so common they look normal. 

As people who hire individuals into our organizations constantly, this is a real threat; sabotage happens every day, even if it isn’t intentional. This manual represents an opportunity to work backwards, anticipating sabotage and preventing it. I’ve broken out some of the recommendations of the manual below, organizing them a bit into different categories that cooperate to shine light on different pitfalls various candidates bring to the table.

Fear of Responsibility

Insist on doing everything through "channels." Never permit short-cuts to be taken in order to expedite decisions. 

Demand written orders. 

Advocate “caution.” Be “reasonable” and urge your fellow-conferees to be “reasonable” and avoid haste which might result in embarrassments or difficulties later on.

One of the bigger advantages any business can have over its competitors is speed; in the case of a start-up or small business, this is often the only advantage you can count on. That’s why reading the sabotage steps above is so painful. Some employees simply can’t work fast; it’s not in their nature. Sometimes this is because of years of bad habits at worse companies, but more often it’s a product of something simpler: fear.

Some employees just aren’t able to move without exact instructions; if something goes wrong they’d be in trouble, which is something they don’t want to deal with (or can’t deal with, emotionally). If an opportunity is running past them, they are almost guaranteed to miss it because they can’t move on anything without absolute triple-stamped permission and instructions. While these employees ask for permission, other employees just do - sometimes mistakes are made, but more often you end up with more work, more seized opportunities and an organization that makes magic happen more often then the competitors.

Push on this in your interviews. Ask about times they had to move forward in clutch situations where they couldn’t get guidance. Ask about the longest period of time they had to work independently and what that was like. Don’t get me wrong: sometimes caution is called for. But if your new employee is afraid of responsibility, caution is all you will ever be able to get -- with all the slowness and rigidity that comes with it.

Putting a Low Priority on “Real Work”

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.

Hold conferences when there is more critical work to be done.

Contrive as many interruptions to your work as you can. When you go to the lavatory, spend longer time there than is necessary.

Work slowly. Think out ways to increase the number of movements necessary on your job: use a light hammer instead of a heavy one, try to make a small wrench do when a big one is necessary, use little force where considerable force is needed, and so on.

There is a real risk of hiring somebody who can’t tell the difference between being busy and being productive. References to lavatories aside, you can see that above -- we are talking about  someone who thinks talking is work or that having a lot of tools they switch between is work. It’s someone who doesn’t organize their day to avoid interruptions to their flow or even someone who welcomes those interruptions. Sometimes these are even people who work long hours and who would report they are stressed. This isn’t necessarily someone who is lazy in the way we normally think of it; it’s just someone who has lost sight of working towards goals and producing regular, measurable results.

They themselves think that they are very busy and will from-their-perspective honestly report that they are used to working in a frantic environment, so it’s easy to unknowingly hire this person (or even to accidentally be this person.) To avoid it, you have to be deliberate in your interview questions. If they work projects, ask them what percentage of time they spend planning as opposed to executing - someone who keeps the importance of actually completing their goals front and center should be able to rattle off those numbers immediately. Ask them about how they keep on task; it’s not an easy thing to do, and a person who keeps on task will know how they do it.

Managers Who Don’t Manage

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

When training new workers, give incomplete or misleading instructions. 

Hold conferences when there is more critical work to be done. 

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.

At Clipboard Health, we talk a lot about how management is the weight on the long side of the lever. A manager’s results are about how much they get out of their team, but to do that they have to be willing and able to apply pressure where it gets the best results. Not everyone can or even wants to do this; for some people “Manager” is a title that works like “Senior” does in some cases -- just as a title that indicates a certain amount of years-on-the-job and a bigger paycheck. 

Above we have four examples of this. The first is a manager who doesn’t think about who they are handing off work to, and the second is a manager who doesn’t like to teach or who can’t communicate clearly enough to lead. The third confuses “more talking” with “more leadership.” The first three are bad, but the fourth might be the worst of all: a manager who doesn’t think about what they reward or what they hope to get out of those rewards. People simply won’t do good work for someone who doesn’t recognize and award it. Stories of people quitting high-paying jobs because they don’t feel recognized are a dime a dozen.

Focused questions are again key here. A manager with a track record of success should be able to tell you how they approach all these things and how they avoid all these problems; if they can’t, it’s a huge red flag warning that their resume might be more smoke than fire. And making sure that you hire the right person here is unbelievably important - since managers often hire themselves, hiring the wrong manager could be a mistake that ripples down their entire team or department.

These are just a few examples -- for all its historic importance, the Simple Sabotage manual is a pretty short document. But it’s a rare and early example of thinking about a problem backwards; the OSS was identifying the problems it wanted to cause and determining what kind of behavior and what kind of mindsets it could encourage to make that happen. Not every example from the manual maps at a 1:1 ratio to some problem we experience, but the concept of keeping potential problems front-and-center in your mind and taking steps to avoid the kind of hires that produce them is universal.

We have the same opportunity to look at the poor outcomes we’d like to avoid and to make sure evading those bad endings is built into every step of our hiring. And it’s important we do -- these were tactics designed to take down one of history’s largest war machines, but they work even better on new or small companies that rely on every member pulling their weight to make things happen. So sabotage-proof your hiring and build the kind of resilient, effective team you can trust to keep the company moving as quickly, efficiently and effectively as it needs to survive.

(Once again, credit to But What For for introducing us to this topic.)

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