A Second World War CIA field manual on sabotage has fascinating insights into modern-day office politics – Karyn McCluskey

The CIA’s declassified ‘Simple Sabotage Field Manual’ contains suggestions on how to hinder an enemy organisation from within that will be familiar to many today. Are we sabotaging ourselves and preventing meaningful change, asks Karyn McCluskey

CIA advice on how a secret agent can disrupt an organisation from within during meetings may be familiar to many people's experience of office meetings today (Picture: Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
CIA advice on how a secret agent can disrupt an organisation from within during meetings may be familiar to many people's experience of office meetings today (Picture: Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Recently I stumbled upon two things that stopped me in my tracks. The first was a tweet by Marcy Sutton, a software engineer, about career burnout. She defined it as “a response to repeated attempts to make meaningful change while lacking the agency to do so”. The thread’s seen thousands of retweets so I’m clearly not alone in recognising this astute articulation.

The second item was a declassified CIA document from 1944 called The Simple Sabotage Field Manual. This fascinating paper outlined ways to hinder the enemy from within.

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There was a lot I laughed at; advice to managers to demand everything in writing, misunderstand orders and undermine morale by promoting incompetent staff especially tickled me. But what brought me up short were six suggestions in the section on general interference with organisations.

1. The saboteur should insist on everything being done through “channels” – never allowing short-cuts which might expedite decisions (this is every episode of Yes, Minister).

2. The saboteur must talk frequently and at length, illustrating “points” with anecdotes and personal experiences and bring up irrelevant issues as often as possible (we’ve all had this, right?).

3. Haggle over the precise wordings of all communications, minutes and resolutions (ever lost the will to live in meetings like this?).

4. Refer everything to committees for “further consideration” and ensure committees are as large as possible – and always attempt to reopen decisions made at the previous meeting.

5. Constantly question whether the group you’re in is allowed to take the action it has set out – might it conflict with the policy of someone higher up?

6. Advocate caution and encourage everyone to be “reasonable” to avoid haste which might lead to embarrassment later.

This last one’s the killer – it encourages the “terror of error”. It undermines leadership, bravery and gaslights people into questioning whether they’re doing the right thing, even if it’s clear.

‘Build back better’

I’ve always felt driven by Scotland’s capacity for kickstarting change – not tinkering-at-the-edges, minor-tune-up change but impactful, game-changing change.

It’s why I love some of the Scandinavian countries which have changed across a range of areas, from early years to prisons to green energy. I’ve heard calls for “build back better”, for a new social contract to bind the kind of country we want for our people and how we want to live.

I’ve heard demands for a focus on wellbeing – for in the face of disease and death, the things we value have become more dear to us.

I know many brilliant people across this amazing country of ours who feel constrained and thwarted in their attempts to make a difference for those who need it most. I see their frustration and anger and I’ve seen the point of burnout. All that energy has to go somewhere and when you’re faced with a brick wall, it will often bounce back on you.

Self-sabotage

At what point did those sabotage tips stop being amusing for you and instead feel uncomfortably familiar? Have we been infiltrated by double agents or have we done this to ourselves? Can it be that we’ve evolved our processes, hierarchies and organisational culture so that they’re preventing as much as enabling change?

The answer is probably above my pay grade but what I will say is the pandemic removed so many blockages.

Self-sabotage is as damaging as external interference and the danger is we become blind to it. We must learn what it looks like – whether that’s from studying how you operate, looking for colleague burnout or learning from a decades-old document – and weed it out. We must remove the barriers to change, even – and especially – if we put them there.

Karyn McCluskey is chief executive of Community Justice Scotland

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