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What comes to mind when you hear the word “sabotage?” Dark-cloaked spies lurking amongst shadowed enclaves?  James Bond detonating a strategically placed explosive device, just seconds after making his escape from a secured facility?  Hackers introducing malicious content into the launch sequence codes of a nuclear missile?   Great for Hollywood, but a little farfetched for those of us in the everyday workplace.

Despite the unlikelihood of any of the above taking place in a workplace near you, many would be surprised to learn that sabotage is actually a fairly common occurrence in today’s workplace.

Sabotage?  In my Company?  No way!

The origins of the word “sabotage” are questionable, but most sources seem to point back to similar backgrounds.  In the 14th-16th centuries, French and Dutch workers found that they could stop the mills and textile looms by throwing a wooden shoe—a “sabot”—into the cogs of the machinery.  Doing so would either shut down production completely, or would cause the cogs to break over time.  Therefore, a discontent worker could seek revenge by “sabotaging” a very expensive piece of machinery, thus shutting down production.

Pretty devious, right?  But does that happen today?

Sabotage can take two forms—active and passive sabotage.  To simplify these two terms, think of active sabotage as doing something you shouldn’t be doing which causes harm to the organization.  Passive sabotage is not doing something you should be doing, which thereby harms the organization.

For an amusing experience, take a look at the Simple Sabotage Field Manual, created in 1944 by the US Government Office of Strategic Services.  As the precursor to the CIA, the Strategic Services Office created the manual to give ordinary citizens of other countries a guide that they could use to disrupt their countries’ wartime policies towards the US.  It’s interesting to see how so many of these concepts relate to active and passive sabotage in organizations today.

A few instructions from the 1944 Simple Sabotage Field Manual:

  1. Managers and Supervisors—To lower morale and production, be pleasant to inefficient workers; give them undeserved promotions. Discriminate against efficient workers; complain unjustly about their work.
  2. Employees—Work slowly. Think of ways to increase the number of movements needed to do your job: use a light hammer instead of a heavy one; try to make a small wrench do, instead of a big one.
  3. Organizations and Conferences—When possible, refer all matters to committees, for “further study and consideration.” Attempt to make the committees as large and bureaucratic as possible. Hold conferences when there is more critical work to be done.
  4. Telephone—At office, hotel, and local telephone switchboards, delay putting calls through, give out wrong numbers, cut people off “accidentally,” or forget to disconnect them so that the line cannot be used again.
  5. Transportation—Make train travel as inconvenient as possible for enemy personnel. Issue two tickets for the same seat on a train in order to set up an “interesting” argument.

Humorous, but many of these forms of sabotage sound familiar—even today!

Engaged employees are actively contributing to the success of the organization.  Disengaged employees sabotage the organization’s progress.  Sometimes, this is active sabotage.  A disengaged employee may intentionally cause harm to the organization.  We find, however, that this is fairly uncommon: less than 4% of employees are actively disengaged, according to our DecisionWise research.

Quite common is the employee that commits “passive sabotage” in the organization.  These are those employees, for example, who may not report a quality concern when it’s noticed, go the extra mile for the customer, help in training the new guy, or remain attentive in meetings.  It may be the person who simply doesn’t seem to care about anything beyond doing what’s required, and then clocking out.  Our DecisionWise Employee Engagement research has found that roughly 28% of employees fit into this category.  They are those we refer to as the “Opportunity Group.”

“Sabotage” may seem like a harsh word to use, but it’s an appropriate one, nonetheless.  Merriam-Webster defines sabotage as “an act or process tending to hurt or to hamper.”  Wouldn’t, then, a disengaged employee fit this definition?

Employee Engagement Survey

Related Post: Are Employees Really that Disengaged in Their Jobs?

Related Webinar: Inside the Mind of a Disengaged Employee

Related Post: Profiles of the Fully Engaged, Fence-sitter, and Disengaged Employees

Related Post: The Employee Engagement Sky is Falling!

Tracy Maylett
Tracy Maylett

Tracy is the Chief Executive Officer and President of DecisionWise, and is responsible for guiding the overall strategy of DecisionWise, as well as leading large-scale change efforts for clients throughout the globe. View Bio

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1 comment — View
  • Sabotage is a real thing and often done in response to a management decision that is not accepted, especially when there is an environment devoid of trust. What did George Bush say that time, “Fool me once, shame on me, fool me twice shame on me…” If he didn’t, then he should have. And Yogi Berra must have a good one on this somewhere…

    Data shows 17% or so fully un-engaged in the workplace. Many feel underpaid and taken advantage of (and many are, if you look at the whole statistical picture) so getting even is not seen as anything way out of the norm. It is actually pretty amazing that the working poor of this country — 80% of minimum wage people work for often hugely profitable multinationals — are not doing more to unionize and protest. When one WalMart can cost the community around a million dollars in welfare and similar costs because of how they (don’t) pay their workers, then it seems somewhat obvious that we have a real issue here.

    Sabotage is a RESPONSE to the perceived environment. Sabotage occurs because of awareness in how thing are related to how things should be, I think. And I also think that we, as business organizations and governmental entities and public service organizations, ought to do more to better involve and engage people in their jobs and make them feel more relevant and contributory.

    But it is not just the saboteurs who sabotage organizational success. It also includes the very many people who simply CHOOSE not to perform to their capability. It is those who decide that average is okay, those who choose to perform at a minimally acceptable level of performance. I put some thoughts about this in an article about workplace motivation –

    But that is just my opinion on things…

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