Don't Let Sabotage Take a Toll on Your Workplace

By Desda Moss Nov 18, 2015

SimpleSabotage.jpg The HR Magazine Book Blog recently talked with the authors of Simple Sabotage: A Modern Field Manual for Detecting and Rooting Out Everyday Behaviors That Undermine Your Workplace (HarperOne, 2015), by Robert M. Galford, Bob Frisch and Cary Greene, to learn how organizations—and employees—undermine their own success.

Your book was inspired by a declassified intelligence document. Why did you find its message still relevant today?

First, every organization is susceptible to (or affected by) destructive behaviors. Second, there are ways of forestalling these behaviors—locating them, isolating them, inoculating organizations against them. And we believe we were able to provide some good guidance and useful tools to address these issues.

Do these behaviors only take place in businesses?

Absolutely not. The distinctions of profit/nonprofit, public/private/governmental, paid staff/volunteer staff, domestic/international and small/large are irrelevant here. We have tested this and discussed it literally around the world. We have shown it to governmental leaders in the U.K., global bankers operating in Asia, university officials and CEOs everywhere, and they have all acknowledged that the behaviors we’re describing are everyday occurrences where they work. No organization, regardless of type or category, is immune.

Who are the perpetrators of these acts of sabotage?

In the same way that no organization is immune from its impact, no individual is immune from succumbing to at least some act of sabotage at some point either. It can creep into all of our behaviors, and it occurs at all levels of an organization, including boardrooms, executive suites, conference rooms and anywhere else.

While the circumstances surrounding the sabotage behaviors may differ, CEOs and other leaders can be just as susceptible to engaging in sabotage behaviors as anyone else. That being said, there are always those individuals who others know are holding back progress, creating enormous frustration around them. But it’s hard to do anything about it, since their actions are seemingly beyond reproach. So there’s a little saboteur in each of us, and one or more major saboteurs in almost every organization.

Are they intentionally trying to take down their organizations?

Fortunately, very few people start their days by trying to figure out how they can best sabotage their workplaces. The vast majority of organizations aren’t staffed by individuals with evil intentions. If you are currently working in such an entity, this would be a good time to head quickly for the exit. Our fight is not nearly so much about rooting out the evil saboteurs as it is about impeding the growth and impact of sabotage behaviors. There’s a big difference. It’s not intended to be a witch hunt.

What is the most common sabotage tactic? How can it be addressed?

Two particular behaviors vie for the “Most Common Sabotage Behavior” prize. The first is “sabotage by committee,” and the second is “sabotage by reopening decisions.”

In sabotage by committee, there are four things one can do to reduce its potential damage:  

  • Make the committee as small as possible.
  • Make sure that your committee appointees really do have to be there in order to make as good a decision or a plan as possible (rather than just being individuals whose points of view have to be considered). 
  • Give the committee a clear deadline and clear deliverables at the outset, as well as a clear “sunset” date for the committee to go out of existence.
  • Put in place a default decision mechanism so that if the committee hasn’t reached its decision or completed its task on time, there is a decision that is made automatically.

To limit the second behavior, sabotage by reopening decisions, there is just one necessary rule to put in place: No decisions can be revisited unless new and relevant information has become available. End of story.

Is there one sabotage tactic that leaders seem to engage in more frequently than others? How does it impact their employees?

Too many leaders avoid making difficult decisions by referring the tough decisions to committees. The result is that important things don’t get decided. People wait around for the answer. They get discouraged and dispirited. Essentially, referring decisions to committees runs the significant risk of turning them into non-decisions. It just kicks the can down the road.

Can you share an example of “sabotage by obedience"?

Sure. Sabotage by obedience may be the most interesting of all, primarily because it is so counterintuitive. After all, on first blush, why should “following orders” be an act of sabotage?

Let’s say a store requires all sales clerks to get approval before accepting a $100 bill, for fear of being stuck with a counterfeit. Mrs. Jones, a regular customer, shows up at the register to make a purchase and only has a $100 bill. The sales clerk looks for the manager, who is busy helping another customer. Mrs. Jones is waiting. A line is forming at the register. Frustration is building.

Mrs. Jones has a suggestion: “What if we write my name on a Post-it note and put it with the bill? You know me. I’ll put my phone number on as well. When the manager is free, she can check the bill; if there’s a problem, I’ll come back and give you a new one. That way, I can get out of here and we won’t be tying up all the people behind me.”

Sounds reasonable. But doing so would require that the sales clerk break a rule. So the sales clerk, not wanting to get in trouble, doesn’t take the suggestion. Mrs. Jones puts her purchase back on the shelf and leaves, believing that the store doesn’t value her or trust her.

By following the rules, the sales clerk has become a saboteur. Did she do something wrong? No. She can’t be fired or criticized for following the rules. She did what she was supposed to do. But, at the same time, yes. She damaged a relationship with a longtime customer.

What happens to organizations when they recognize these behaviors and stop them?

The world becomes a better place. Actually, it helps more than just making things more productive. It builds trust and puts integrity and honesty into the organization. When people have the vocabulary and the authority and the tools to reduce sabotage, they are better-equipped to face tougher issues more maturely and directly.

Robert M. Galford, @RobertGalford on Twitter, is managing partner of theCenter for Leading Organizationsand co-author ofThe Trusted Advisor, The Trusted Leader and Your Leadership Legacy. He teaches executive education programs at the Columbia University Graduate School of Business, the Kellogg Graduate School of Management and Harvard University.

Bob Frisch@Offsites Guyon Twitter, is managing partner atStrategic Offsites Group. He is the author of Who's in the Room?

Cary Greene, @carygreene on Twitter, is a partner at Strategic Offsites Group and leads its efforts on large-scale transformation and strategy programs.

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