Thoughts
August 19, 2022

The literal textbook on how to be terrible at work

We’ve all been there, sitting in a meeting that is so awful it almost feels criminal. Nobody quite knows why they’re there. There’s no agenda or goal. Some loud-mouth jerk won’t shut up, and another prickly son-of-a-gun keeps trying to table things or nitpick on process.

Whether its an internal team meeting, a client presentation, or outside of work altogether in a volunteer or political group, sometimes it feels like whoever is running these meetings-from-hell are actively trying to sabotage whatever it is you’re working on.

It feels that way, because this is exactly what the textbook on sabotage says to do.

In 1944, as the nation was in the midst of World War 2, the CIA’s predecessor, the Office of Strategic Services, prepared a top-secret training document titled “Simple Sabotage Field Manual.” Originally intended to be used by chaos-causing agents in occupied territories, the 32-page guide helped slow down, annoy, and generally weaken the enemy’s war machine.

After decades under wraps, this document was declassified in 2008, and it eerily describes and predicts dysfunctional organizations all around us today. It’s wild.

Here’s are some of the tips these spies have to give about ruining organizations:

Insist on doing everything through "channels." Never permit short-cuts to be taken in order to expedite decisions.

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.

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.

Bring up irrelevant issues as frequently as possible.

Haggle over precise wordings of communications, minutes, resolutions.

Anything sound familiar in your own work life? I bet everybody has one or two weaselly past or present colleagues or collaborators that comes to mind as they go down the list. (By the way, make sure you go check out the whole thing, it’s incredible from top to bottom.)

Flipping the page to the next section, here’s the literal rulebook on how managers can sabotage their teams:

“Misunderstand” orders. Ask endless questions or engage in long correspondence about such orders. Quibble over them when you can.

Insist on perfect work in relatively unimportant products; send back for refinishing those which have the least flaw. Approve other defective parts whose flaws are not visible to the naked eye.

When training new workers, give in complete or misleading instructions.

Hold conferences when there is more critical work to be done.

Multiply the procedures and clearances involved in issuing instructions, pay checks, and so on. See that three people have to approve everything where one would do.

Everything in here is remarkable. There’s more about giving lengthy and incomprehensible answers, multiplying paperwork, and advocating “caution” for employees and managers alike. And because it’s a comprehensive field manual, there are plenty of pages on how to gum up factories or telecommunications systems if that’s your thing.

In a clip that has been shared in a million GIFs, Dwight Shrute said “Whenever I'm about to do something, I think, "Would an idiot do that?" And if they would, I do not do that thing.” This guide is the enumerated list of what an idiot would do, and it’s worth reading so you can be sure to do the opposite.

About the Author

Ben Guttmann ran a marketing agency for a long time, now he teaches digital marketing at Baruch College, has a book coming out in 2023, and works with some cool folks on other projects in-between all of that. He writes about writes about how we experience a world shaped by technology and humanity – and how we can build a better one.

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