When you think about outstanding military leaders, commanders like Napoleon Bonaparte and inspiring orators like Winston Churchill might come to mind. These leaders accomplished incredible feats against the odds. But like leaders in any successful business, they required the commitment and hard work of others to achieve their goals. In 1941 the US established the first intelligence agency led by General William "Wild Bill" Donovan. The agency's purpose was to coordinate intelligence and conduct counterespionage to destroy the enemy from the inside. Their missions trusted small teams to perform heroic acts of sabotage and train resistance fighters. General Donovan published the Simple Sabotage Field Manual with the ominous instruction to not allow the manual to come into unauthorized hands. If it is true that teams and organizations can be destroyed from the inside, then one of the most important things a leader can do is to reverse engineer these now-declassified tactics of sabotage to bring out the best in followers. Here are the parts I found especially compelling from the manual and the proven leadership countermeasures you can deploy.
How to motivate saboteurs (or your team)
Engaging others to commit acts of sabotage requires motivation. As stated bluntly in the manual, "purposeful stupidity is contrary to human nature." The manual emphasizes the need to provide pressure, assurance, and information to the saboteur. Here are the three motivation tactics identified in the manual and the leadership countermeasures you can successfully deploy.
Motivation Tactic #1: Make it Personal
The average citizen likely has no reason for sabotage. Make it personal by specifically connecting acts of sabotage with personal gains, show how the saboteur is part of a larger organization, and assign responsibilities for sabotage.
As a leader, answering "what's in it for me" is one of the best motivation tools in your arsenal for implementing change. The answer to this question ensures others in the organization know the benefits and not just what is changing.
When followers recognize how their actions connect to the larger vision, it leads to engagement by creating a sense of belonging. Social Identity Theory suggests that we share identity with individuals we associate with. As a result, followers are more likely to trust those individuals than individuals and groups with whom they do not share an identity.
Are you assigning work effectively, also known as delegating? Research has found that effective delegation improves job satisfaction, performance, intrinsic motivation, confidence, and career development. It is thought that delegation signals trust and support from the leader to the delegate, resulting in increased follower effort and performance. Additionally, effective delegation improves the employee's perception of the leader's performance.
If you want to do a few small things right, do them yourself. If you want to do great things and make an impact, learn to delegate. – John C. Maxwell
Motivation Tactic #2: Provide Encouragement
Saboteurs need to believe they are acting in self-defense by committing acts of destruction. Also, the use of humor can ease tension and reduce fear.
There are many good reasons why leaders should think twice before using humor at work. But research suggests that humor during times of crisis significantly improves employee engagement and organizational performance.
Much of the positive influence of humor is due to a biochemical response. Laughing reduces cortisol levels which have a calming effect, increases endorphins creating a runner's high, and increases oxytocin which creates warm feelings toward others.
The recipe for getting humor right at work includes:
knowing your audience
keeping it positive
keeping the topic close to you and not others
understanding yourself and potential blindspots associated with your natural style
In this TEDx, Karyn Buxman expands on the science of humor.
Motivation Tactic #3: Minimize Risk
Bad news spreads quickly. The number of opportunities and degree of perceived risk limit the effectiveness and efficiency of a saboteur.
When possible, observe and eliminate or modify the desired behavior's negative, immediate, inevitable consequences. If followers are required to work in a freezer, you can provide warming jackets to reduce the negative effects of the cold. After you attempt to reinforce the desired behavior, observe if performance improves. If not, learn and adjust.
The ABC model, also known as the three-contingency performance management model, provides a foundational understanding of why people do or do not perform a given behavior.
The "A" stands for those things that prompt desired behavior (antecedents). The "B" stands for the desired behavior. The "C" stands for consequences. The consequences that the employee experiences after or during the behavior have the most significant impact on performance.
Specific suggestions for sabotage (or leaders)
Clear expectations improve a team's understanding of goals and create alignment across the organization. The Simple Sabotage Field Manual identified several specific techniques for different types of targets. The following is a selection of tactics identified in the manual specifically for managers and supervisors.
Demand it in writing
Ask endless questions and use long messages
Make objections when possible
Do everything possible to create delays
Don't provide the team with new tools and resources
Demand the most expensive tools and resources and complain if you don't get them
Complete unimportant tasks first and give the essential functions to the least skilled team member
Insist on perfection and accept defective work
Give incomplete or misleading instructions when training new employees
Reward poor performance
Go to conferences and meetings to avoid getting the work done
Create duplicate files
Create policies and procedures for everything
The leadership countermeasure to deploy for these simple sabotage suggestions is to take this list and use it as a checklist to reflect on your leadership habits. Then commit to doing the opposite. In addition to individual reflection, you can capture some additional benefits by reviewing this list with your team to identify if they see any of these acts of sabotage within the team or company.
You may have laughed nervously and shuddered a little as you recognized some of these tactics and tendencies in your leadership or where you work. The countermeasures for the sabotage tactics that General Donovan made indispensable to intelligence officers can make you a leader indispensable to your team and company.
How does the Simple Sabotage Field Manual inspire you as you think about your unique position and opportunities?
Aaker, J., & Bagdonas, N. (2021). How to be funny at work. Harvard Business Review.
Chevrier, S., & Viegas-Pires, M. (2013). Delegating effectively across cultures. Journal of World Business: JWB, 48(3), 431-439.
Daniels, A. C., & Daniels, J. E. (2006). Performance management: Changing behavior that drives organizational effectiveness. Atlanta, Ga: Performance Management Publications.
Drescher, G. (2017). Delegation outcomes: Perceptions of leaders and followers' satisfaction. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 32(1), 2-15.
Joiner, T. A., & Leveson, L. (2015). Effective delegation among hong kong Chinese male managers: The mediating effects of LMX. Leadership & Organization Development Journal, 36(6), 728-743.
United States. Office of Strategic Services. (1944). Simple Sabotage Field Manual. Project Gutenberg.
Yukl, G. and Fu, P. (1999), "Determinants of delegation and consultation by managers," Journal of Organizational Behaviour, Vol. 20 No. 2, pp. 219-232.