Ugly Blueprint

Who Moved Your Cheese? Blame the OSS

The CIA’s World War II precursor once published a manual full of sabotage techniques that any victim of a disfunctional workplace will instantly recognize.

In January 1944, at the height of World War II, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS)—the predecessor of today’s Central Intelligence Agency—issued an extraordinary classified document. OSS operatives, under the direction of General William J. “Wild Bill” Donovan, had been organizing and training members of the European resistance movement in tactics of sabotage. These techniques were presented in a slim volume, the Simple Sabotage Field Manual, which was printed in several languages and smuggled to Allied supporters behind enemy lines. The manual detailed easy ways to disrupt and demoralize the enemy’s institutions without being detected. The authors’ intentions were clear: “Slashing tires, draining fuel tanks, starting fires, starting arguments, acting stupidly, short-circuiting electric systems, abrading machine parts will waste materials, manpower, and time. Occurring on a wide scale, simple sabotage will be a constant and tangible drag on the war efforts of the enemy.”

The cumulative effect of these thousands of barely detectable individual acts would wear down the Axis powers and prevent them from achieving their goals. While planes and tanks and ships battled the enemy on the front, the OSS and resistance fighters would use the techniques from the Manual to attack from within.

Much of that slim volume (now declassified and available to all) (PDF) was devoted to physical acts of sabotage—put-sand-in-the-gas tank, leave-oily-rags-in-a-pile, that sort of thing. But one section was devoted entirely to sabotaging organizations—in particular, to messing with their decision-making processes, their meetings, and their procedures. The eight tactics described in that section were devastatingly destructive. What’s more, they were incredibly difficult to spot because—on the surface—they looked like good behaviors. They are:

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

2. “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.”

3. “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.”

4. “Bring up irrelevant issues as frequently as possible.”

5. “Haggle over precise wordings of communications, minutes, resolutions.”

6. “Refer back to matters decided upon at the last meeting and attempt to re-open the question of the advisability of that decision.”

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

8. “Be worried about the propriety of any decision—raise the question of whether such action as is contemplated lies within the jurisdiction of the group or whether it might conflict with the policy of some higher echelon.”

Sound familiar?

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If so, we’re sorry to say that you’re in good company. Every time we show this page to any of our friends, they look at these eight rules and say something like: “That’s my company! My boss does that all the time! I just left a meeting where somebody did that!” The hard reality is that the same wartime tactics prescribed by the OSS are alive and well and in use (however unintentionally) in offices across America today. If you frequently find yourself grumbling, “This shouldn’t be happening” at all the petty things that make it so hard to just do your job, there’s a good chance that your co-workers have unwittingly taken a page out of this 70-year-old intelligence playbook.

The good news: you need not toil in misery and give up hope while that guy hijacks yet another meeting with a pointless story that serves no purpose other than to make everyone late to lunch. There are ways to recognize, counteract, and prevent these behaviors so that you—and your entire office—can do the work that really matters without all the dysfunction, inefficiency, and time-wasters.

Here are three tactics that are among the most common—and the most vexing—in today’s workplaces, with some thoughts on how to shut them down.

“Insist on doing everything through ‘channels.’ Never permit short-cuts to be taken in order to expedite decisions.” Have you ever known how to solve a problem, but your hands have been tied because of the need to follow proper procedure? Wanted to sweeten a deal for a great client, but couldn’t because you needed the boss’s approval, and the boss was temporarily unreachable?

Obedience—doing everything just the way it is supposed to be done—becomes sabotage as soon as it prevents sound personal judgment from overriding processes that for whatever reason are not working at that moment.

If “channels” are tying your hands behind your back at work, write down when it happens and then have a fact-based conversation with your boss. Suggest that the company (or department) go over the rules people work by, and see if some of them are out of date, maybe in place for reasons that aren’t relevant to the way work is done. In fact, to bolster the case, if you can make it happen, have your company or department conduct a brief anonymous employee survey. Ask a couple of blunt questions such as: What is the stupidest rule or process we have around here? If you could rewrite or change one process or procedure, what would it be and why? Maybe the rationale for a so-called stupid rule hasn’t been communicated well; or just maybe a so-called stupid rule really is stupid. Perhaps it was created years ago and made sense then, but doesn’t now—and inadvertent sabotage is being committed as people spend time enforcing a rule that is killing productivity.

“Haggle over precise wordings of communications, minutes, resolutions.” Most of us learned long ago about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs—self-actualization, esteem, love/belonging, safety, physiological. Nobody ever talks about the sixth hidden level: the need to edit other people’s writing. But it’s real, and that’s OK. Hagglers can perform a valuable and necessary service. They can push people to think, encourage them to consider more powerful words or ideas, and potentially help create a higher quality product—in some cases, they can even avert a potential embarrassment or disaster, especially in today’s digital world, where one small error in wording that allows for misinterpretation can go viral in minutes and cause lasting damage to the people or organization that put it out there.

Hagglers become unintentional Saboteurs, however, when they’re left unchecked and they draw the people they’re with into an endless editing exercise. The experience can deflate an otherwise enthusiastic effort, cause delays in the timeline, and make everyone present—and those waiting for the final product—frustrated and resentful. If ever there was a situation where the saying “Don’t let the perfect become the enemy of the good” fits, this is it.

Our best advice? Don’t ask known Hagglers open-ended questions. Don’t ask for “feedback” in general. Ask pointed questions that set limits on the scope of the response. (“Can you tell me if there are any factual errors in this document?” or “Can you tell me if there are any grammatical errors in this document?”) That way, at least you can say, “Thank you, but I don’t need feedback on anything else at the moment,” if they start to go too far.

“Bring up irrelevant issues as frequently as possible.” Most of the time, at work, it’s fine hearing other people’s (brief) stories. They refresh the conversation. They form the foundations of the personal connections that make us want to work with each other, that help us create strong teams. We do want to hear about our colleague’s puppy. We do want to hear about the wonderful restaurant our boss found in Chicago on her last trip.

Irrelevant issues spell sabotage when they’re close to being relevant, and so people engage in debate and discussion without realizing they’re wasting time. Say you’re talking about your budget, and someone brings up a competitor’s company that went bankrupt. “Their budget was out of control,” someone says. “You could tell by the way they stocked the stores.” Then another person speaks up. “Yeah but the guy who owned that chain was indicted for insurance fraud, too. I read about it. There was more going on there than meets the eye.” A loose discussion ensues about the competitor, and then about other competitors. Your budget? Sidelined.

To combat Sabotage by Irrelevant Issues, try to be sure that any meeting you’re a part of has a clear purpose and time limit. If you’re leading the meeting, define the problem you’re all trying to solve at the beginning of the meeting, and state clear goals. “By the end of this meeting, we plan to… ” If you’re a participant, but not the leader, ask for that definition. And if someone brings up a “close to relevant issue” and you spot it, speak up. Say, “That’s interesting, but I think it is taking us off track. To get back to our goals… ” and then redirect the conversation, if you can. (Our hearts go out to you if the Irrelevant Saboteur is the meeting’s leader. That happens. Too much.)

Each of these sabotage tactics—in fact, all of the tactics mentioned in the OSS Manual—are aspects of the very behaviors that are necessary to the health of any group of people working together. These are good behaviors, but taken to an extreme. They all have strong plausible deniability. That’s why they are insidious. Be on the lookout, and catch them if you can.

Robert M. Galford, Bob Frisch, and Cary Greene are co-authors of Simple Sabotage: A Modern Field Manual for Detecting and Rooting Out Everyday Behaviors That Undermine Your Workplace (HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins).