How to (Inadvertently) Sabotage Your Organization

Members of organizations often can’t help getting in their own way. We’re all vulnerable.

Reading Time: 5 min 


In 1944, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the Central Intelligence Agency’s predecessor — headed by legendary William “Wild Bill” Donovan — put together a secret field manual for sabotaging enemy organizations.1 The manual encouraged “simple acts” of destruction that required no special training, tools, or equipment, with minimal “danger of injury, detection, and reprisal,” and that, crucially, could be executed by “ordinary citizens.” The OSS identified two ways of undermining an organization: physical damage to equipment, facilities, transportation, and means of production; and human obstruction of organizational and managerial processes, leading to “faulty decisions and noncooperation.” Both ways targeted the productivity of a company. Lowering employee morale — organizational sabotage — was considered as effective at slowing down an organization’s output as pouring sand into the lubrication systems of its machines.

The 32-page manual wasn’t declassified until 2008 and included precise and detailed instructions for its subjects based on assumptions of how groups and organizations functioned. As anyone who reads through the recommendations today will attest, many of the instructions still ring true. An abundance of opportunities for sabotage existed — and continue to exist — because “a faulty decision may be simply a matter of placing tools in one spot instead of another” or “a noncooperative attitude may involve nothing more than creating an unpleasant situation among one’s fellow workers, engaging in bickerings, or displaying surliness and stupidity.” More specifically, the manual identified the human element as most vulnerable to interference, as people are “frequently responsible for accidents, delays, and general obstruction even under normal conditions.” Sound familiar?

Of course, production systems have changed, thanks in part to advances in manufacturing methods such as mistake-proofing equipment, and they are harder to cripple than they were 75 years ago. Simple acts such as “blowing out” the wiring in a factory, letting dirt and trash accumulate to make a building more flammable, and letting cutting tools become dull to slow down production (all recommendations for simple sabotage) aren’t what today’s managers are concerned about. Instead, they worry about cybersecurity breaches that involve average citizens, such as password phishing, trolling, and any release of confidential company data. Indeed, if Wild Bill Donovan were to commission the OSS sabotage manual today, he’d most likely replace simple acts of physical damage with cyberattacks that the “average citizen” could carry out.



1. The “Simple Sabotage Field Manual” was declassified in 2008 and is available for free on the CIA’s website.

2. J.W. Rivkin, S. Thomke, and D. Beyersdorfer, “Lego,” Boston: Harvard Business School, case no. 613-004 (July 2012).

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Comment (1)
One suggested correction (or addition): It's not that we haven't changed much since 1944; we haven't changed much since Man was created. 

I have long argued that most managers are pretty much ignorant of human behavior because their education, both in university and in the home, is sorely lacking in the areas of psychology, sociology, philosophy and theology. Simply stated, we are grossly ignorant of who we are, and much of what we purport to know about who we are is wrong.

This article should be required reading not just for managers, but for everyone who enters the workforce.