How to destroy an organisation from within: Lessons from CIA

Sunday February 12 2017

David Weru (right) explains a point as two of his employees fix a drip kit in a farm in Kabete, Kiambu County.

David Weru (right) explains a point as two of his employees fix a drip kit in a farm in Kabete, Kiambu County. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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There’s more than one way to defeat an enemy. As the best spies know, you don’t just mount external attacks; you also work to weaken your enemy’s organisation from within.

In 1944, the precursor of America’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), created something called the Simple Sabotage Field Manual.

This booklet described ways to sabotage America’s World War II enemies. The OSS director, William J Donovan, recommended that the sabotage guidance be declassified and distributed to citizens of enemy states via pamphlets and broadcasts, for maximum damage.

Sympathisers who received the instructions would then follow them where they worked if their organisations were friendly to the Nazi regime. The aim: to weaken from within. This manual is now available on the CIA’s website. Let me highlight some of the key instructions.

First, the advice to 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.”

Next, what ordinary employees should do to ruin their employer: “Work slowly. Contrive as many interruptions to your work as you can. Do your work poorly and blame it on bad tools, machinery, or equipment. Complain that these things are preventing you from doing your job right.”


Thirdly, something about committees and conferences: “When possible, refer all matters to committees, for “further study and consideration.” Make the committees as large and bureaucratic as possible. Hold conferences when there is more critical work to be done.”

And lastly, the good old 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.”

As you read that stuff, I’m sure you shook your head in disbelief. If that is what you’re supposed to be doing to destroy an organisation, why are those very same practices exactly what we see every day in modern workplaces?

Look around you. Government entities excel in exactly these things: promotion of all the wrong people for all the wrong reasons; ponderously slow work; endless conferences and self-propagating committees; and near-impossible communication from the outside.

Look even further: do you know a single large firm, even in the private sector, where the practices recommended by the OSS are categorically not being done? Is it not our daily experience as customers and users?

Now look closer: what about your own organisation? Isn’t there a perpetually opaque promotion machine in place, delivering egregiously awful people to high places while systematically overlooking the genuine workers? Aren’t most of your co-workers eternal slackers who couldn’t give a damn about the mission and values hanging on the wall?


Don’t you all rush off to a pointless and expensive conference the minute there’s a budget available? And isn’t that a phone ringing, or email dinging, that no one is answering?

Finally, bring it home. Are you yourself guilty? Do you promote relatives or cronies; do you slacken off when no one is watching and then blame your equipment; do you fritter company money away on having a good time; do you watch as customers leave unattended?

So what’s happening here? Are we still in the grip of devious foreign agents? Are you?

No, the spies merely understood the essential problem of organisational inertia. They termed these instructions “purposeful stupidity.” It turns out we don’t need spymasters to subvert us: we are perfectly capable of ruining ourselves through a selfish focus on personal gain; and through a failure to develop any collective vision.

Our organisations look like this because they are led by egomaniacs who prolong their stay by elevating sycophants.

They fail because they gather people like resources to be exploited, not as talent to be ignited. They are mediocre because no one gives a damn, and no one is expected to. We are stupid on purpose.

Things need not be this way. If you are an enlightened leader, or thoughtful employee, take time to look at that list. If you wanted to kill your organisation, this is what you would do. So why are you doing it?

Stop destroying yourself through flawed practices. Start by eliminating the bad, and you might find the good flowing naturally from there.